On 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, into the walk-in freezer. Meza shot him in the back and left him for dead.
The clerk recovered to testify against the man who wounded him. Meza received a 20-year sentence and served five years before getting out on parole. Months after his release in 1982, he abducted an 8-year-old girl as she rode her bicycle near her home in southeast Austin. Meza tortured, raped and strangled the girl, then left her body behind a trash bin. He received a 30-year prison term for the slaying.
Meza was denied parole seven times, but by 1993 prison authorities could keep him no longer. Under Texas law, he had accumulated enough credit for good behavior to qualify Most felons re-enter society quietly and soon become anonymous. But Jerry White, the city editor of the Austin American-Statesman, decided to make Meza famous.
Mr. White compiled a list of notorious inmates from Austin and every few months he called the department of corrections to ask when they'd be eligible for parole. In June 1993, the department of corrections confirmed that Meza was due to be released. Using the state's Open Records Act, the newspaper petitioned Texas' 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. 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 [Meza] in the butt from one end of Texas to the other."
Of the 276 halfway houses that were asked to accept Meza, 271 refused. "Every town he went to," says Mr. 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 Aug. 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, where he was greeted with more demonstrations.
In August 1994, Meza was arrested for violating the curfew provision of his parole, and he returned to a state prison in Huntsville.
A blunt instrument
The publicity generated by Meza's release became a blunt instrument that bludgeoned everyone close to the case. His relatives were humiliated. His victim's parents saw their tragedy replayed in the press. And nobody knows how such attention may have retarded Meza's rehabilitation. But Meza did not kill another child while out of prison.
More and more communities are clamoring for laws that will alert them when violent offenders are released. Maryland has joined a number of states that require notification of local police when a released convict moves into a jurisdiction.
Maryland's law, passed during the past legislative session, becomes effective Oct. 1. It requires convicted child sex offenders to register with local police after they are released from prison or after they are placed on community supervision. The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services will keep a statewide registry of the offenders. Local law enforcement officials, after receiving written requests on specific offenders, are empowered to supply information from the registry.
Statistics show that Meza's neighbors should have been concerned about his presence. About one-third of convicted rapists in Texas 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.
Ex-cons commit a staggering amount of crime. As John J. 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. Mr. 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 commited 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."
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. An 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."
Of course, not all neighborhoods would take advantage of more information about felons. In some parts of cities, particularly in poor areas were 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. 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 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."
Noble aim, bad effect
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. 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 20-year-old with cerebral palsy, might still be alive. On a Sunday afternoon in July, Mr. 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.
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 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 &r; department will not suffice. For employees who break confidentiality rules, says Mr. Battistoni, "the penalties could be severe. You'd be subjecting yourself and your county to all sorts of suits. It's tough stuff."
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.
The inability of probation officers to track offenders effectively 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.
No more anonymity
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. 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 have 10 days to re-register. The process continues for 10 years after their release.
If the 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 jTC 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.
Once he has notified the larger community of his crime, an offender must tell his neighbors about it by sending 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.
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.
Tucker Carlson is a Bradley Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He is writing a book about community crime control.