A System Out of Control

A System Out of Control

By Ruben Navarrette - March 17, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- In California, the criminal justice system's method of dealing with sexual predators who harm or even kill children is -- to borrow a phrase -- stuck on stupid.

What else can we conclude in light of recent and frightening revelations about just how free and uninhibited convicted sex offender and now accused murderer John Albert Gardner III was while on parole after serving five years of a six-year prison term for molesting, beating and falsely imprisoning a 13-year-old girl. The victim later said in an interview that she thought Gardner intended to rape her.

The Associated Press has reported that Gardner violated his parole seven times by moving too close to a school, for letting the battery run low on his electronic ankle bracelet, and other offenses. According to media reports, Gardner also had other brushes with the law. He was stopped and cited by local law enforcement officers numerous times during his parole for possessing marijuana and other infractions. And yet, his parole was never revoked.

The people of California would like to know why. Was it because of neglect, incompetence or the fact that the prisons are so seriously overcrowded that field agents are discouraged from sending offenders back inside? They may never find out since officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation claim that Gardner's field file -- which contained, among other things, notes and observations of parole officers -- was destroyed under a department policy that requires documents be purged within one year after a person's release from parole.

That's convenient. Are you sure the acronym for this agency isn't CYA? Could this be part of a cover-up by squeamish, six-figure-salaried bureaucrats in response to a high-profile case that could cost them their jobs? That is not out of the question. The more that comes out about what Gardner may have been up to while on parole -- including the multiple violations -- the worst the story gets.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently ordered the California Department of Corrections to stop destroying the field files. Now Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is running for Schwarzenegger's job, must investigate the Corrections Department to make sure everything was done properly.

Meanwhile, we're not doing a very good job of protecting our children from the inefficiencies of the system. Gardner is now accused in the murder of 17-year-old Chelsea King of Poway, Calif. He is also "a focus of the investigation" into the death of 14-year-old Amber Dubois of Escondido, Calif.

The 3.2 million people of San Diego County -- and the millions around the country following this story -- should start channeling some of the anger and disgust they feel toward sexual predators such as Gardner and focus it on the system that lets them loose in society largely unsupervised. These are your tax dollars at work, folks.

But let's also save some of that anger and disgust for local law enforcement officials and the dysfunctional way in which they deal with sex offenders.

Aim it at police who, with scant evidence, foolishly make snap judgments that missing teenage girls are more likely runaways and not abductees. This was how the Escondido Police Department dealt with Amber Dubois' disappearance last year, despite repeated pleas from her parents to open a more active investigation. The parents became so frustrated that they eventually turned to a private investigator.

Aim it also at prosecutors who are so eager to put a conviction in the "win" column that they offer ridiculously lenient plea deals instead of going to trial and risk blemishing their record with a defeat. Prosecutors defend themselves by saying that child-related sex crimes are especially hard to take to trial because the young victims are usually reluctant to face the defendants.

That's true. But this is always going to be a problem. These are, by definition, crimes against children. Your star witness is always going to be a child. That's no reason to kick the can down the road by handing out generous plea deals to people who we can reasonably assume will, upon their release, continue their evil ways. And rack up more victims.

The accused are entitled to their day in court to answer the charges against them. But this system can't be defended.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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