O n New Year's Eve 1975, after an evening of taking LSD and watching cop shows on television, 15-year-old Raul Meza showed up at a convenience store near his house in Austin, Texas, armed with a deer rifle. Meza emptied the cash register, then marched the clerk, a 20-year-old college student named Derly Ramirez, into the walk-in freezer. Meza shot him in the back and left him for dead.
Ramirez recovered to testify against the man who wounded him. Meza received a 20-year sentence, and served five years before getting out on parole.
On January 3, 1982, months after his release, 21-year-old Raul Meza abducted Kendra Page, a third-grader, as she rode her bicycle near her home in southeast Austin. Meza tortured, raped, and strangled the girl, then left her body behind a dumpster. Three days later, he surrendered to the police. Meza received 30 years for the killing.
While behind bars, Meza racked up demerits for various infractions, and four years were added to his sentence after guards found a knife in his cell. Meza came up for parole seven times, and each time it was denied.
By 1993, however, prison authorities could keep Meza no longer. Under Texas law, he had accumulated enough credit for good behavior to qualify automatically for release. The state freed him under mandatory supervision, a conditional release not unlike parole that can be granted without the consent of the parole board.
No matter how notorious, most felons leave prison with little fanfare. They re- enter society quietly and soon become anonymous. Some begin new and honest lives. Many others, freed from supervision and accountable to no one, commit new crimes. Raul Meza might have regained his freedom in the same way. But he never got the chance. One hundred and forty miles from Meza's Huntsville prison cell, an Austin newspaper editor decided to make him famous.
In 15 years of covering crimes, Jerry White, the city editor of the Austin American-Statesman, had watched scores of criminals disappear from public view after sentencing. Most of them left prison years before their sentences expired, often to rob, rape, or kill again. "It became apparent," says White, "that even though these folks are sentenced and sent away, the story doesn't really end." White began compiling a list of inmates who were "fairly notorious" in Austin. Every few months, he called the department of corrections to ask when inmates on his list would be eligible for parole.
In June 1993, the department of corrections confirmed that Meza was due to be released soon. Using the state's Open Records Act, the newspaper petitioned Texas's attorney general and found where Meza planned to live. An article ran on the front page of the Sunday paper eight days before Meza's release. The headline read, "`Nothing's Going To Stop It': Killer of 8-Year-Old About to be Freed."
In a city of about 465,000 people, the story reached 240,000 homes and provoked an outpouring of media attention. Film crews greeted Meza as he walked out of the state prison and followed him for months. Publicity, mostly bad, seemed to trail him everywhere. Corrections officials moved him from town to town, but in each residents and local politicians protested his presence. Colin Amann, a Houston lawyer who represented the killer after his release, says angry citizens "kicked him in the butt from one end of Texas to the other."
For much of 1993, Texans kept on kicking. Over several months, he was shuttled between towns and cities all over the state. Of the 276 halfway houses that were asked to accept Meza, 271 refused. "Every town he went to," says Amann, "people were just screaming and yelling. Lots of small communities went out and bitched about it. A lot. And it happened every time they'd move him, they had the same outcry."
In August, the parole division placed Meza on his grandparents' farm, west of San Antonio. On August 31, local sheriffs charged Meza with "terroristic threatening" and disorderly conduct for bullying his elderly grandparents. A judge later dismissed the charges, but the incident made nearly every newspaper in Texas. At least 1,000 local residents signed a petition asking the state to move Meza again. The parole division sent him to Austin.
His new neighbors protested, held rallies, carried signs. A few moved away. The furor subsided a bit when the father of the murdered girl publicly called for citizens to give Meza the chance to start a new life. He moved into his mother's house and found a job. In the first 10 months of 1994, the American-Statesman ran more than 20 stories on Meza. In August 1994, he was arrested for violating the curfew provision of his parole, and he returned to the state prison in Huntsville.
At the time Meza was taken into custody, there were more than 116,000 parolees in Texas, 15,000 of whom had outstanding warrants for parole violations. Yet the governor's fugitive squad focused its energies on Meza, the most famous one. And while parolees in Texas routinely get three chances to break parole before being arrested, Meza was taken into custody after only one violation. His supporters cried foul. But the citizens of Texas were the better for it.
Meza needed all the attention he could get. As a group, violent sex offenders have an extraordinarily high rate of recidivism. In Texas, about one-third of convicted rapists are arrested for new crimes within two years of getting out on parole. Ordinarily, parole officers are not able to supervise sex offenders carefully. But because they learned from news reports where Meza lived, neighbors were able to keep their children out of his path. Relentless publicity forced a troubled parole system to work effectively. And information disseminated by the press helped to create thousands of civilian parole officers--watchful neighbors who kept an eye on him.
Publicity, however, is a blunt instrument, and others were unintentionally bludgeoned by Meza's fame. His relatives were humiliated. His victim's parents saw their tragedy replayed in the press. And Meza himself was hounded across the state. Nobody knows how such attention may have retarded his rehabilitation, but it may not matter. Despite the burdens imposed on him and his family--or, more likely, because of them-- Meza did not kill another child while out of prison.
Even Meza's attorney, a self-described liberal, believes the publicity was worth the cost. "I think everybody should know when a parolee is coming to live in their neighborhood," says Colin Amann. "That's why crime is committed, because people don't know who the criminals are. Once they get out, let's let the entire world know where they are going to live. Let's let the community have some responsibility for keeping its thumb on them."
More and more communities are clamoring for that very responsibility. Meza's case illustrates what most people already sense: Citizens who know their neighbors will be safer than those who don't. Study after study has shown anonymity to be a factor in many crimes. Simply put, criminals are more apt to commit crimes in neighborhoods where they do not know the neighbors, and where the neighbors do not know one another. As James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein explain in Crime and Human Nature, their expansive survey of criminology, "the more rapid the population turnover in an area, the higher the victimization rate, even after controlling for the racial and age composition."
Conversely, close-knit communities tend to be resistant to predatory crime. A criminal is less likely to commit crimes where the neighbors recognize him, particularly if they know that he has a criminal record.
Statistics explain why citizens have a vested interest in knowing who in their neighborhood has been convicted of serious offenses. Ex-cons commit a staggering amount of crime. As John DiIulio of Princeton University has pointed out, "within three years of sentencing, while still on probation, nearly half of all probationers are placed behind bars for a new crime or abscond." Nationally, recidivism for parolees is about the same as for probationers. DiIulio cites a revealing study of Florida convicts:
"Between 1987 and 1991, about 87 percent of the 147,000 felons released from Florida prisons were released early. Fully one-third of these parolees committed a new crime. At points in time when they would have been incarcerated had they not been released early, these parolees committed nearly 26,000 new crimes, including some 4,656 new crimes of violence--346 murders, 185 sexual assaults, 2,369 robberies, and 1,754 other violent offenses."
Not only are felons on supervised release dangerous, but there are a lot of them. In 1993, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a total of 671,000 Americans were on parole or probation. There is considerable evidence that many parole and probation officers are responsible for far more offenders than they can possibly supervise, even those housed under one roof. A investigation in 1993 by the Rocky Mountain News found that one of every six convicted felons placed in Colorado halfway houses escaped. That year, the study found, 526 felons walked away from halfway houses and into the surrounding neighborhoods. Seven of the escapees were convicted murderers. "In most cases," the paper concluded, "no one looked for them."
Informed neighbors don't always just keep offenders from committing crimes; sometimes they can help ex-cons straighten out. Mike Elsworth got out of prison in Washington, D.C., for the last time on Halloween 1990, after serving two years for selling cocaine. Elsworth, who was paroled to the same part of town where he grew up, credits his neighbors for helping him keep his record clean since his release. Although he was shunned by at least one woman on his block, other "neighbors were supportive and understanding of me trying to do better once I got out. They knew I was looking for a job, and they would tell me about places that they knew were hiring, and some of them would tell me if I needed anything to come on by." Three months after his release, with the encouragement of his neighbors, Elsworth found a job.
Elsworth says his neighbors gave him the help and attention his parole officers did not. In two years, Elsworth reported to five different officers. "It was like, every three months I had a new one," he says. "I don't know why. They really had little or no concern about me as a person." Elsworth met with his parole officer for 10 to 15 minutes every few weeks. But he saw his neighbors every day, which ultimately, he says, made all the difference.
Of course, not all neighborhoods would take advantage of more information about felons. In some parts of cities, particularly in poor areas where citizens tend to live chaotic lives, neighbors often know who is on parole and don't care. Nor would giving neighbors the names and addresses of all newly released felons always benefit the felons themselves. Critics have long charged that releasing the names of parolees and probationers to the public would make it more difficult for convicted criminals to start successful new lives once they get out of prison. A federal judge recently struck down parts of "Megan's Law," a New Jersey statute requiring released sex offenders to tell their communities where they live. In his decision, Judge Nicholas Politan said the notification requirement amounted to a form of punishment, and cannot be added to penalties already in place before the law was passed in 1994. Requiring a convicted felon to notify his neighbors upon release, he wrote, would constitute a "lifelong albatross," and would ruin an ex-con's ability to "return to a normal, private, law-abiding life in the community." Judge Politan might be right. Ultimately, however, much of what would happen if the names of parolees were publicized is conjecture. As it stands, the identities of released criminals often remain shrouded in state and federal privacy laws. The Federal Privacy Act of 1974, for instance, generally bars authorities from divulging the names and addresses of parolees released from federal prisons. Most states, wary of civil-rights lawsuits brought by released felons, have adopted similar laws. While the intent of such statutes may be noble, their effect has sometimes been devastating.
Last summer, the residents of Red Hook, a small town in upstate New York, paid the price for having an unknown felon in their midst. In June, Richard Moran, a lifelong criminal from the Bronx, was released from Rikers Island, where he had spent the previous three months on a parole violation, and placed in Red Hook's only homeless shelter. No one knew his criminal record. No one was watching.
Had Moran's record become public, Tommy McCauliff, a 29-year-old with cerebral palsy, might still be alive. On a Sunday afternoon in July, McCauliff emerged from his apartment, staggered across the street, and bled to death on the sidewalk from a knife wound in his back.
Police picked up Moran and charged him with second-degree murder. He was later convicted.
By the time he came to Red Hook, Moran had spent close to half of his 43 years behind bars. First arrested in New York City for armed robbery in 1969, he went on to amass 26 different criminal charges, including several violent felonies. Within days of being released, Moran made his way to Shelter Plus, a state-financed boarding house for vagrants in Red Hook, 90 miles north. Under circumstances that are still not clear, he met Tommy McCauliff.
When an inmate with two or more convictions is released from a state prison in New York, within 48 hours corrections officials must notify the police in the town to which he is headed. Rikers Island, however, is not a state prison, but a jail run by New York City. Authorities there were not required to notify police in Red Hook that Moran was on his way to their town. And they didn't.
The state's department of social services in nearby Poughkeepsie was the only agency that knew about Moran's arrival in Red Hook, and New York's confidentiality laws require social workers to keep secret the criminal histories of their clients.
"Anything in our records is confidential," says John Battistoni, the county's commissioner of social services. "Parolees just come in like anyone else. If they're without a place to go, we're required to give them shelter." Only a court order, he says, can force the department to divulge the names of the parolees it places in homeless shelters. A call from the local police department will not suffice. For employees who break confidentiality rules, says Battistoni, "the penalties could be severe. You'd be subjecting yourself and your county to all sorts of suits. It's tough stuff."
All things considered, says Battistoni, he is not bothered by the secrecy. "I suppose people shouldn't be branded," he offers. "People are saying they'd like to know if a criminal is placed in their neighborhood. I often wonder what they would do with the information if they had it. Put a 24-hour tail on the guy?"
Lisa Murray has no doubt what she would do with such information. "I would keep an eye on that person," she says, "and I would know if that person was near my child, if it was a rapist or a child molester, to get my kid away." Murray is one of five Red Hook women who formed a group called Concerned Citizens for a Safe Community after McCauliff's death. The group advocates changing the confidentiality laws they believe were partly responsible for the killing.
Murray points out that Richard Moran is not the only criminal to move into the homeless shelter without the town's knowledge. Since McCauliff's death, police have arrested two other residents of Shelter Plus for selling drugs. "Whenever somebody gets a DWI or commits a robbery, it's in the paper before they're even convicted of the crime," she says. "So why not have a criminal who's already been convicted of a crime and released from prison be put in the paper saying where he's going to live?"
A county legislator named Woody Klose quickly sponsored a resolution requiring local police to be notified whenever felons are placed in homeless shelters. Steve Saland, a state senator, sponsored a bill that would force corrections officials to notify towns whenever a parolee is about to be released into their midst. Unlike the statute in place, the new law would apply to jails as well as state prisons. It would require authorities to notify the mayor and the chief of police of the town to which the parolee is headed, as well as officials in the town where the crime was committed. The written statement would include the ex-con's physical description, his known aliases, and his criminal record. It would also contain his new home address. Towns would have to post the information in a public place, such as a bulletin board in city hall, in post offices, or in advertisements in local newspapers. Released offenders would be required to report to local authorities for a period of 10 years each time they moved to a new address in New York.
Saland's notification law would apply only to paroled sex criminals, repeat violent offenders, and those convicted of three or more felonies. Saland says the law would not prevent parolees from committing new crimes. But it might help neighbors to protect themselves from released criminals. "All you can do is provide notice," he says. After that, "it's up to the community."
Tommy McCauliff's death prompted New York politicians to take a new look at an old debate. For years, lawmakers have tried to balance the requirements of public safety with a belief that stigmatizing released felons makes rehabilitating them more difficult. Many states have compromised by requiring parolees and convicted criminals to register their addresses with law-enforcement officials, but not with neighbors or community groups. States that do provide for community notification when a felon is released nearly always limit the notification to cases involving sex offenders.
Most states that have such laws leave their application to the discretion of law enforcement officers. Often police departments get to decide which sex offenders constitute a threat to their neighbors. Although the state of Washington allows police to release photographs of and information about convicted sex offenders to community groups, and news outlets, the law is not always used. In the first 10 months of 1994, for instance, county police in Spokane notified the public only once of a paroled sex offender, though several were released into the area. Carol Dorris, who follows crime legislation for the National Victim's Center, says it is not unusual to see effective laws passed, then ignored. "It's fine to put in statutes and legislate something," she says, "but to enforce them is a lot harder to do."
Nevertheless, recent developments show that concerned citizens have several outlets for civic action:
The inability of probation officers to effectively track offenders argues for comprehensive notification laws--let the community provide the surveillance that the state cannot or will not. So far, such laws exist only in theory. For fear of destroying an ex-con's chances of success after release, no state has passed laws that would give the public the names and addresses of all parolees and probationers.
Louisiana, however, has taken the lead in warning communities about released sex offenders. In 1992, the legislature passed two laws that ensure sex offenders will never again live anonymously in Louisiana. Or, as a later revision to the laws put it, "Persons found to have committed a sex offense have a reduced expectation of privacy." In fact, a person convicted of one of the state's 18 sex offenses can expect practically no privacy at all.
The two laws and their amendments are vast in scope. No later than 10 days before a sex offender gets out of prison, corrections officials must send letters warning of his impending release to his victims, witnesses who testified against him, and the sheriff of the parish (county) to which he is going. Once he gets out, a sex offender must register with the sheriff and provide his fingerprints, his photograph, his social-security number, and any aliases he has used. The ex-con must also give the sheriff a description of his offense, including the date and place he committed it, and his home address. Offenders who move within the state of Louisiana have 10 days to re-register. The process continues for 10 years after their release.
If his victim was a juvenile at the time of the offense, the offender must notify his neighbors as well. Twice within his first month out of prison, he must purchase an advertisement in his local newspaper. The ads must reveal his name, his address, and his offense. Descriptions of the crimes must be written in language ordinary citizens can understand; statute numbers do not suffice. To verify that it meets these specifications, the ad must pass muster with a parole officer.
One such classified advertisement, which appeared in the New Orleans Times- Picayune on May 8, 1994, is typical of the genre. "John Jones of 701 Teche St.," it said, "was convicted of a Sex Offense, Simple Rape." Another, on June 10, 1994, advertised, "I, Jim Davis, was convicted of molestation of a juvenile." [Policy Review has changed the names.] Other ads placed in the paper in June mentioned carnal knowledge, sexual battery, and indecent behavior with a juvenile.
Once he has notified the larger community of his crime, an offender must tell his neighbors about it. The parolee must send letters or postcards with the same information--name, address, and offense--to every house within three blocks of his home. In cities, this usually means 36 square blocks and hundreds of houses. A parolee who lives in a rural area must send letters to everyone within a one-mile radius of his house.
Finally, a sex offender whose victim was under 18 must contact the superintendent of the public-school district in his parish, as well as the principals of any private or parochial schools in the area.
If it chooses, a parole board also "may order any other form of notice which it deems appropriate, including but not limited to signs, handbills, bumper stickers, or clothing labeled to that effect." All of the expenses involved in the notification, such as stamps, envelopes, and advertising fees--not to mention any specially-labeled clothing the parole board may require--must be borne by the parolee. If at any time he fails to meet any requirement, an offender may be returned to prison.
When John Roger, president of the Bayview Civic League in Norfolk, Virginia, asked the local police department to release the names of parolees who had moved into his neighborhood, it refused. Undeterred, Roger sought information at the other end of the criminal justice system: arrestees.
Unlike the addresses of released felons, arrest records are publicly available from the police department. Every month, the league's newsletter, Bayview Bylines, publishes the name, race, and home address of each person taken into custody by the police within the boundaries of the Bayview neighborhood. Periodically, in a feature called "Pervert Alert," Roger also provides descriptions of flashers, peeping Toms, and other unsavory characters seen in the area. To pay for printing, local merchants buy advertising space in the newsletter. "Want to know why we do it?" he asks. "It's simple. We live here. We believe our members have a right to know what's going on."
Though he prints only 4,000 copies of the newsletters, Roger is confident they reach many more people. Residents read it, he says, not only out of a fear of crime, but to "find if somebody they know has been arrested." The publicity can have consequences. Landlords, says Roger, scan the names of arrestees. "If it happens to be one of their tenants, they get rid of him."
Although it remains difficult in most states to learn the whereabouts of parolees, there are other ways citizens can gather information on potentially dangerous criminals. In July 1994, John Johansen, a financial consultant in Arlington, Virginia, published the first issue of Crime Prevention Bulletin, a quarterly newspaper with a circulation of 30,000. Police departments in Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland and Virginia cooperated with Johansen, giving him the photographs and last known addresses of fugitives in the area. Johansen printed the mug shots, some beneath headlines like "Wanted for Murder." The papers were distributed throughout the area by members of neighborhood organizations.
The Bulletin was an instant success. In many cases, fugitives were still living in the same areas, even at the same addresses, amid neighbors who had no idea they were wanted by the law. Local police did not have the resources to track down each of the fugitives. But they could respond to tips provided by citizens who recognized their neighbors in the Bulletin. In its first six months, police credited Johansen's newspaper with the arrests of 15 fugitives in Washington alone. Six of them were suspected murderers.
Sanford "Sandy" Krasnoff, the president of Victims and Citizens Against Crime, in Lousiana, says his group devotes much of its energy to making certain the state's sex-crimes laws achieve their desired effect. Every Saturday morning, the flamboyant Krasnoff, who at various times in his career has been a New Orleans cop, a lawyer, and a manager of professional prize fighters, hosts a radio show called "Crime Watch." Each week, during three hours of air-time donated by the station, Krasnoff announces the names, addresses, and crimes of all sex offenders released on parole or probation in Louisiana in the previous week. Krasnoff gets the information directly from the parole and pardons board.
Krasnoff's group also monitors offenders after their release. A volunteer, whom Krasnoff refers to as "the sex lady," scans newspapers for advertisements placed by parolees under the new law. When he saw that some of the ads were "coming out in mumbo-jumbo, referring to act numbers and statutes instead of telling people exactly what they were charged with," Krasnoff wrote a letter to the department of corrections, which promptly instructed parole officers to reject such ads.
According to William T. Price, the deputy director of the state's adult probation and parole division, the state's new sex-offender laws have not prompted violence from the public. In a few cases, people moved upon learning that a child molester had come to their neighborhood. But, he says, nobody has yet thrown a fire bomb.
Price does worry that the laws may be too broad, covering not only child molestation and forcible rape, but also non-predatory crimes like bigamy. "If you can attach the concept of sex to it," says Price, a crime probably falls under the rubric of the new laws.
For all its willingness to publicize the names and addresses of sex offenders, the state of Louisiana still guards information about other parolees carefully. Apart from sex criminals, the state's probation and parole division refuses to give out the home addresses of the convicts it supervises. The concern, says Price, is that some people, such as bill collectors, could put the information to unwholesome purposes. "We don't want to get into that business," he says.
In the fall of 1994, residents of Warwick, Rhode Island, a Providence suburbwere desperate to publicize the whereabouts of a man named Craig Price. Five years before, Price had admitted stabbing to death four of his Warwick neighbors. Because he was technically a juvenile when he committed the murders, he was sentenced to a juvenile detention center until age 21. Incensed by Price's crime, a Warwick police captain named Kevin Collins organized citizens to fight his release. "This guy had butchered four people," says Collins, "knowing that when he gets out at 21, he can go out and obtain a gun, [or] work in a day-care center."
Collins decided to keep Craig Price from ever becoming anonymous. He recounted Price's story on radio and television shows. He sent press releases to papers around the country. When he heard that Price planned to move to Florida upon release, Collins hired an airplane to tow a sign over Miami Beach. The banner read, "Killer of 4 Craig Price Moving Here? No Police Record!" Similar messages floated over Chicago and beaches in Los Angeles and New Jersey.
Once Price is released, Collins says, he will not be able to tell the public where the killer lives. "Once he gets out there--like if he moves into your neighborhood," says Collins, "if I went around there knocking on doors, I think they're going to come after me on a civil-rights violation." Collins says the memory of the man's crimes may be enough to keep Price from killing again in Rhode Island. "Hey, my attitude is, he deserves to be a prisoner of public opinion."
Exercising the Right to Know
Although no Rhode Island statute would prevent Collins from publicizing Craig Price's address once the killer is released, doing so would be unwise. As a police officer, Collins could wind up in federal court under Title VII of the United States Code. Passed in 1964 as part of Lyndon Johnson's civil-rights legislation, the law allows individuals to bring civil action against government officials who conspire to deprive them of rights guaranteed under the Constitution. Courts have interpreted the law liberally, and it is conceivable that Collins could be found to have violated Price's right to privacy, a protection some judges believe emanates from the Fourth Amendment.
The state's privacy act prohibits government officials from releasing a parolee's medical records, or information about his drug or alcohol treatment. But no regulations prohibit the state from giving out his home address to citizens who ask. The privacy law does not bind Rhode Islanders who do not work for the government. Says James Jerue, chairman of the state's parole board, if Craig Price were released on parole in Rhode Island, any citizen could find out where he lived. Not that Jerue thinks citizens would try to learn. "It has never happened," he says. "No one has ever asked for a home address."
Citizens have a right to know when potentially dangerous criminals are released into their neighborhoods. But they also have an obligation to make the effort required to find the information. And there are many ways to get it.
- In places like Rhode Island, citizens can simply ask the state for the names and addresses of parolees.
- In states with strict privacy laws, such as New York, citizens can lobby the legislature for legal reform.
- Individuals can ask newspapers to publish the results of every parole hearing in the state, as well as the names of every person arrested and convicted for a serious crime. Once such information becomes public, it can be spread to a wider audience on community bulletin boards and computer services.
- Citizens' groups can apply political pressure to police departments to release the names and addresses of those arrested and of those being released from prison into the area.
- No citizens' group should underestimate the power of a well-placed news story to make police departments more accommodating to its requests. If public scrutiny helps to keep criminals honest, it can have the same effect on public officials.
More than anything, concerned citizens must be willing to spend time and energy gathering information on known criminals. Which means they must be nosy. An informed community is not necessarily the most private, but it will be the safest.