Get-out-of-jail-free card nets 81 parolee fugitives

SACRAMENTO -- California corrections officials dangled an attractive offer Saturday before hundreds of parolees who have become fugitives: Turn yourself in, get a $200 reward and qualify for an amnesty program.

Authorities said 81 who showed up in Oakland were sorry they did. Instead of getting a check, they found themselves in handcuffs and, for most, headed back to state prison for violating their parole.

Agents set up the elaborate ruse with its own Web site and e-mail account. They appointed an agent to the fictitious post of "amnesty program director." They sent 2,700 letters to relatives of parolees-at-large advertising the reward and fake amnesty program.

The sting was aimed at some of the more than 14,000 California ex-convicts who have broken off contact with their parole agents, are suspected of committing new crimes or of violating terms of their parole.

It was an updated variation on an old bait-and-switch. In the past, agents have reeled in fugitives with fake notices that they had won cash or prizes but needed to show up at a certain location to collect.

"Using the Web page and such is a new way to do it. We used to play on the greed, and now we're playing on the promise that they might be released from custody," said Tony Chaus, who runs the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Office of Correctional Safety.

The offer had the hollow ring of truth, piggybacking on the state's colossal budget deficit and a bona fide state law that took effect in January.

The law creates a new nonrevocable parole for some offenders who are considered to be less dangerous. Those on nonrevocable parole don't have to report to parole agents, are free to come and go as they please, and can't be sent back to prison unless they are convicted of a new crime.

The fugitives were told they would be put on nonrevocable parole or discharged from parole entirely to help the state cut costs and prison crowding.

"If you have received a letter, you are pre-qualified for Amnesty or Discharge," read the offer posted on the Web site. "Your warrant will be canceled and a $200.00 check will be issued. ... A Non Revocable Parole card will be issued and you will be free to go."

The amnesty ended Saturday, warned the Web site, and parolees at large were told they "must call for reservations."

About 130 felons showed up at the Oakland parole office, some with family members in tow. They were told to wait in an auditorium until they could be taken, one at a time, to see a counselor. They were arrested as they got off an elevator and soon were en route to the Alameda County Jail.

"I think they were pretty stunned, to be honest with you," Chaus said.

Midway through the process, word filtered back to those waiting in the auditorium that it was a sting. "Things got pretty loud," said Chaus, and a dozen or more parolees escaped. Officers rushed in and arrested the remaining parolees without incident.

Chaus said other parolees slipped away earlier Saturday and were allowed to leave for fear of revealing the sting prematurely.

Seven fugitives who had received the letters were arrested before Saturday, including one who flew in from Tonga, when they arrived at the office to take advantage of the amnesty, he said.

A few of those arrested might qualify for the nonrevocable parole program, Chaus said. But his team targeted "the worst of the worst" for the sting: Most are suspects in new crimes or have outstanding warrants beyond being in trouble as wayward parolees.

Some lawmakers, victims' rights and law enforcement organizations have criticized the nonrevocable parole law for eliminating supervision for thousands of ex-convicts, some of whom served time for serious offenses.

But half of the projected $200 million first-year savings is going back into reducing the number of offenders supervised by each parole agent from about 70-to-one to about 48-to-one.

"We've chosen to focus on the real bad apples," said department spokesman Oscar Hidalgo. With the reduced caseload, "You're able to focus your attention and energy on those who are the highest risk."

The department added about 40 employees and $300,000 worth of computer software to help find fugitive parolees.