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Rule increases parole severity in cases with media coverage

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Newsgathering         Jun 5, 2000    

Rule increases parole severity in cases with media coverage

  • Under a new California regulation, prison inmates who attract extensive media or legislative attention may be subject to more stringent parole requirements.

A new California Department of Corrections regulation increases the length and severity of parole for inmates in “public interest” or “high notoriety” cases — which are often defined by the amount of media contact and attention they receive.

Journalists and First Amendment advocates are worried that this regulation will make parolees reluctant to speak to the media or lawmakers for fear that the contact will lead to such a classification.

In California, such regulations are adopted through an administrative law process, which allows for a period of public comment after a new regulation is proposed. But the department declared an “emergency” and enacted the new regulation on May 18 without an opportunity for public comment. Although the regulation is in effect, the public will have two months to submit comments before the regulation becomes final.

According to the California First Amendment Coalition, the new regulation creates three categories of parole treatment. The first, “high control,” is for those convicted of violent felonies. The second, “high service,” is for those needing greater medical or psychological support.

The third category, “control services,” is for everyone else. In this category, a parolee must meet with a parole officer twice a quarter, at least once at the parolee’s residence. If the parolee’s progress is satisfactory after 180 days, he or she is automatically reassigned to the “minimum supervision category,” which might require as little as two contacts a year.

But according to a CFAC report, this light supervision option is not available to parolees who are classified as “public interest” cases that receive “extensive media coverage beyond the local community,” or “high notoriety” cases that “generate extensive attention by the public, media, or lawmakers.”

Peter Sussman, former president of the Society of Professional Journalists in the Northern California area, has been active in the struggle for journalists to gain access to prisons and inmates. Sussman believes that the new regulation will have detrimental effects not only on journalism, but on the legislative process as well. For example, a legislator testifying in a public hearing might cite a particular inmate in an example. But in mentioning that case, the legislator is drawing “public interest” and “high notoriety” to the inmate.

Sussman believes that many California legislators have not yet heard about this regulation. The regulation has been “buried” and “really not publicized,” Sussman said.

This new regulation is yet another development in the ongoing struggle for journalists to gain access to California’s prisons and inmates.

Last month, a bill to increase media access to prisoners passed through the State Assembly. But even if the bill passes the Senate, it will likely be vetoed by Governor Gray Davis, who vetoed an identical bill last year.

“This bill is inconsistent with the national trend to reduce, not expand, rights of prisoners,” Gray Davis said in a 1999 letter to the members of the Assembly.

(California Code of Regulations, proposed addition of Section 3605 to Title15, Division 3)

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