Meet Arnold’s Willie Horton

A parolee on a crime spree could be used by the governor’s political opponents to paint him as soft on crime. Unfortunately, that also may put an end to much-needed parole reform.

Courtesy Of San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department

Royce Timmons didn’t know it at the time, but when he was paroled and then allegedly went on a horrendous crime spree involving multiple victims, he became the poster boy for opportunistic tough-on-crime politicos and for public-employee unions hoping to bring down the governor of California.

Timmons started the first day of his six-day run in an argument with his girlfriend, and the dispute quickly escalated. He allegedly reacted by stabbing his companion multiple times in the neck and face, and she nearly died. Later the same day, he supposedly kidnapped a woman who was sitting in her car at a fast-food restaurant and drove her to three different places, stopping to rape her at each, before she finally managed to escape.

Police claimed that over several subsequent days, he robbed two women at a small business, carjacked another vehicle, robbed and kidnapped the clerk at a convenience store and then raped her. On the day of his reckoning, Timmons carjacked a Ford Explorer from an auto dealership, scored some crack cocaine and drove around town getting high. At the same time, a police unit that had been looking for the parolee found him. The chase was on and abruptly ended when Timmons rolled the Explorer onto its side.

As the police approached, Timmons was still sucking on the pipe, according to prosecutor Victor Stull. “Even though he’s been in this chase, and the car’s tipped over, the most important thing in his mind is to take one more hit on his crack pipe,” said Stull. In his jail booking photo, the 46-year-old Timmons appears to be in a daze, his bloodshot eyes glassed over and his face splotched with several days of uneven growth of salt-and-pepper facial hair.

The accused now sits in a San Bernardino County jail, where he will remain unless he can arrange bail, currently set at $5 million. Court records show that Timmons faces 18 criminal counts on charges including attempted murder, carjacking, robbery, kidnapping to commit robbery/rape, rape by force, sodomy with force, and sexual penetration with a foreign object.

In the future, political historians may record that Timmons’ crime spree marked the beginning of the end of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s grand prison-reform agenda and created the first significant breach of the Republican’s tough-on-crime firewall. It is virtually certain that a deep-pocketed coalition of Schwarzenegger opponents has every intention of exploiting the opening for political gain and at the expense of prison and parole reform.

The first real chink in Schwarzenegger’s anti-crime armor, and the inevitable politicized aftermath, also means that several parole-reform programs, tested as effective in other states and forming the cornerstone of the governor’s plan to refocus the California correctional system on rehabilitation instead of punishment, will be indefinitely delayed if not discreetly terminated. That means that $85.4 million that Schwarzenegger said he would save the state by reducing parole recidivism is in jeopardy. The cancellation of the parole programs also has reopened a federal class-action lawsuit against the state thought to be mostly resolved last year.

As of last month, the suit already had cost the state more than $1.3 million in legal bills, according to documents obtained by SN&R under state public-records law. In a court hearing last week, attorneys for the parolee plaintiffs in the case argued that Rod Hickman, one of Schwarzenegger’s most prominent Cabinet members, should be ordered to explain why he shouldn’t be held in contempt of court for violating the lawsuit settlement agreement. And the great irony is that the entire chain reaction may have been avoidable.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rod Hickman, secretary of the state’s Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, stand on a hillside above Folsom State Prison at a media event May 10. Two days later, a federal judge in Sacramento chastised Hickman for terminating several parole-reform programs.

Photo By AP Worldwide Photos

In May last year, less than eight months before Timmons’ crime spree, the director of the California Department of Corrections (CDC), Jeanne Woodford, and Schwarzenegger Cabinet appointee Hickman, the secretary of the CDC’s parent agency, the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency (YACA), unveiled “an aggressive strategy to improve California’s failing parole system with the specific goal of improved public safety and increased parolee accountability.”

Woodford and Hickman jointly announced “strategic reforms” that included a new way of handling the 70,000 parolees per year who incur minor technical violations of their parole conditions, such as failing a drug test or missing a parole appointment. Instead of being sent back to prison and costing taxpayers millions behind bars, the reforms provided that many of these wayward parolees would be diverted to drug treatment, job-training classes or other programs. “The strategy we are following will help reunite families, give parolees tools to succeed in the workforce and increase the number of parolees who safely transition into the community,” said Woodford.

Last November, the accomplishments of Schwarzenegger’s first year in office, and his plans for the future of California, were touted in a 48-page full-color glossy publication called “Progress on the Road to Recovery,” also available for download from the state of California’s Web site. “The Governor has set forth a plan to improve public safety and reduce victimization by lowering the rate of recidivism among parolees,” reads page 36. The plan was to transition parolees from prison to the streets by starting the re-entry process before they were released. Some parolees return to receptive families or friends and have no trouble finding a job. Others, often drug offenders, have burned all bridges in the outside world and leave prison with $200 in “gate money,” less the cost of the bus ticket home, and no place to go but a homeless shelter. The plan was to assist parolees like these with housing, transportation and help finding work. Because these same parolees also have a high risk of re-offending, the program called for close parole supervision and swift sanctions for parole violations. But the sanctions would go beyond the traditional return to prison; alternatives such as stints in a drug-treatment facility also would be used instead of parole revocation.

“California has not, unlike many other states, developed a continuum of graduated sanctions that can be used to respond to parole violators,” Schwarzenegger said in his first budget summary. The lack of alternatives turns the parole system into “a tangled web where parole violations are primarily dealt with by returning the parolees to prison, driving the institutions’ costs and the crowding of inmates.” Last May, the governor predicted he would save the state $85.4 million in 2004 by reducing parole recidivism.

In his State of the State speech on January 5, Schwarzenegger reiterated his commitment to reforming California’s prison and parole systems. “California was once the national leader, a pioneer, in corrections integrity, innovation and efficiency. We can make it so once again,” he proclaimed.

The same week of the governor’s State of the State speech, parolee Timmons missed two out of three drug-counseling sessions he was required to attend under the terms of his parole. After being released from prison for the fifth time, Timmons had committed several parole violations, including testing positive for cocaine.

Instead of being sent back to prison, he was referred to a new parole model program, the Substance Abuse Treatment Control Unit, known by the acronym SATCU. The program originally was specified for parolees who did not have a record of serious or violent felonies. But Timmons caught a break; even though he had prior convictions for armed assault and carjacking, 12 weeks earlier the CDC had relaxed the SATCU requirements to allow virtually any parolee, except some sex offenders, into the program. The decision would come back to haunt Hickman, the man handpicked by Schwarzenegger to implement his parole-reform vision.

The initial phase of the program consisted of 30 days in custody at a drug-treatment facility, followed by 90 days of mandatory outpatient treatment where Timmons was required to attend three group counseling sessions per week. The second week of January, he again missed two out of three meetings, and the staff at the treatment facility notified Timmons’ parole office in writing, for a second time, about the problem. Timmons’ parole agent, Homero Pena, was responsible for monitoring the parolee’s progress in the program, but Pena’s last face-to-face contact with Timmons occurred on January 3, according to CDC spokesman Todd Slosek.

There is no record of any contact being made with the parolee after the office was notified that he had missed the counseling sessions. (Pena told SN&R he was instructed to refer questions about the Timmons matter to his supervisor, Jeffrey Gaither. Gaither initially implied he would answer questions but then changed his mind and referred questions to regional parole administrator Alfred Martinez. Martinez indicated he would answer questions but then also declined and referred the inquiry to Slosek at the CDC communications office. Slosek could only say when the last recorded contact between Pena and Timmons occurred.)

It is also unclear what action, if any, Pena or Gaither was required to take in response to Timmons’ violations. An SN&R Public Records Act request—faxed to YACA Secretary Hickman, asking for the CDC’s written policies and procedures for SATCU and two other “new parole model” programs—has gone unanswered for more than four weeks despite state law, which requires a response within 10 days. CDC spokesman George Kostyrko said that when Timmons missed the counseling sessions, he was in the final month of the 90-day aftercare program and that Pena had the option of locking up, “redirecting” or reinstating Timmons into the program, or referring the case to the state Board of Prison Terms. The parolee was on minimum-supervision status, which required one contact per month with his parole officer, according to Kostyrko.

Last week, attorneys Michael Bien (left) and Ernest Galvan (right) asked a federal judge in Sacramento to begin the proceedings to hold California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency Secretary Rod Hickman in contempt of court for canceling parole-reform programs.

Photo By Stephen James

Kostyrko also provided two memorandums outlining the SATCU eligibility requirements. Those memos show that the original SATCU guidelines that only allowed nonviolent offenders into the program were issued on May 7, 2004. The revised guidelines, making virtually all parolees eligible for the program, took effect on July 1, 2004. Timmons has a criminal history dating back to 1982 that includes convictions for grand theft auto, armed assault and carjacking. In any event, within two weeks of missing his last drug-treatment-program group session, Timmons was back behind bars, having left a trail of traumatized victims throughout San Bernardino County.

Timmons’ case reeked of the potential for political exploitation: A career criminal returned to the street under a new, liberalized parole policy implemented by a new governor.

In the 1988 presidential-election contest, George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager boasted that “by the time this campaign is over, Willie Horton will be a household name.” He was right. Willie Horton was a convicted felon who, while serving a life sentence for murder, was released on a weekend furlough during the administration of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. While out, Horton assaulted Clifford Barnes, raped Barnes’ fiancée and then stole Barnes’ car. The political exploitation of Horton is credited as one reason for Bush’s election victory over Democratic candidate Dukakis, who was painted with the broad brush of being soft on crime.

In the next California gubernatorial-election cycle, Schwarzenegger is expected to face a hardball opposition campaign mounted by a coalition of public-employee unions, including the prison-guard union, and other victims’-rights groups. Timmons may soon become a household name, and future historians may record his January 2005 six-day crime bender throughout San Bernardino County as significantly weakening Schwarzenegger’s prospects of a second term. The governor is clearly vulnerable: A Public Policy Institute of California poll released last month found that 47 percent of likely voters surveyed disapproved of Schwarzenegger’s job performance, up from 33 percent in January.

The cover of the current issue of Washington Monthly magazine features a cartoonish illustration of a grimacing Schwarzenegger looking into a light-bulb-rimmed Hollywood makeup mirror. Instead of Schwarzenegger seeing himself in the reflection, a grinning Jesse Ventura, the one-term celebrity governor of Minnesota, looks back. The cover story—“Is Arnold Losing It?”—documents the career parallels of the current and ex-governors.

The possible political ramifications of the Timmons case, and the fear of there being more Timmonses out there about to re-offend, may have led to the unexpected April 11 cancellation of the new parole model. In contrast to his high-profile public statements announcing the new parole-system reforms, Hickman pulled the plug on those same reforms by issuing only an in-house memo addressed to all Parole and Community Services Division staff. “Effective immediately, these programs will no longer be used,” Hickman wrote. In a rambling, two-page rationalization, Hickman explained to the troops that the abrupt change of policy occurred because: “At this time, we have no evidence that these three programs, as originally designed and implemented, increase public safety.”

But Hickman’s claim that there was no evidence that the design and implementation of the new programs increased public safety was a half-truth. Numerous state studies and reports document that the programs, as designed, do in fact increase public safety. But, as the case of Timmons gruesomely illustrated, the haphazard and incompetent way the programs were implemented is what reduced public safety and effectively gave otherwise valid and tested reforms a bad name. (Also helping to discredit the SATCU program was a February 27 report in The Sacramento Bee about the Timmons case. The Bee reported that Timmons completed the drug-treatment program, which he didn’t, and then “went on a crime spree.”)

In addition, the decision to cancel the programs may not have been Hickman’s to make, according to court documents from a long-running federal class-action lawsuit against the state. The plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case known as Valdivia vs. Schwarzenegger have asked that Hickman be held in contempt of court for terminating the new parole programs, which were included as part of a March 9, 2004, settlement and court injunction against the CDC. The state originally was sued in 1994 because the CDC was locking up alleged parole violators for months without telling them why or providing them a hearing.

The history of the Schwarzenegger-Hickman parole reforms can be traced back to the Davis administration and to policy recommendations contained in a November 2003 report by the state Little Hoover Commission, “Back to the Community: Safe & Sound Parole Policies.” The report called the California parole system “a billion-dollar failure” and identified four fundamental causes: (1) Time in prison was not being used to prepare inmates for their eventual release; (2) Available resources—particularly those in communities—were not being used to help parolees who, with some assistance, could get a job and stay out of trouble; (3) When inmates did get into trouble, the vast majority of them went back to prison—even if drug treatment, short jail stays or some other intervention would have cost less and done more to help them straighten up; (4) Thousands of times each year, parole revocation was used in lieu of prosecution for parolees who were suspected of committing new serious crimes.

The report pointed out that parole policies in other states were different than in California and that the Golden State was out of sync with the rest of the country because it put a greater percentage of felons on parole, offered little assistance to parolees and then sent them back to prison for parole violations that in other states would place a parolee in drug treatment, work furlough or other “intermediate sanctions” short of a return to prison. Nationally, one in three parolees ends up back in prison before completing parole. But in California, two out of three parolees return to prison, according to the report. In essence, the commission emphasized that reducing the recidivism of parolees is not rocket science and that applying what works in other states to the California system is a logical place to start. “Forty-eight other states do a better job of getting parolees from the prison rolls to the tax rolls,” the report said.

Jeanne Woodford (center) awaits a legislative committee’s confirmation of her appointment last year as director of the California Department of Corrections, as Rod Hickman (seated in the front row to her left) awaits his turn to be confirmed as secretary of the state’s Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.

Photo By Stephen James

The commission stressed that in order to implement the reforms, the state would need to overcome institutionalized resistance to change and a punitive “culture of punishment,” as opposed to a rehabilitative focus. This culture permeates the system so deeply that many prison administrators have resisted or undermined efforts to provide inmates employment, education and other prison programming, according to the report. In the area of providing in-prison education to inmates, the report noted that a chapter of a prison-guard union demanded that wardens shut down a program that helped inmates at two rural prisons earn community-college degrees. The report said the union was “outraged” that a community college would provide state-funded education to inmates. “A memo to union members urged a boycott of all prison-backed fundraisers, blood drives, picnics and other functions until the program was cancelled,” according to the report.

In a section of the report titled “What More Do We Need to Know?” the commission admonished the state for its dismal record in implementing the recommendations of previous studies and reports, including a 1990 Blue Ribbon Commission on Inmate Population Management established by the Legislature, and two other Little Hoover Commission reports from 1994 and 1998. The reports concluded that millions of taxpayer dollars could be saved if inmates received education or work programs while in custody; intensive pre-release preparation; and a parole plan that included finding out what parole services, such as housing, employment and drug-treatment assistance, would contribute to the inmate’s success on parole and beyond. “All of the recommendations are based on evidence of success, not ideology,” the report said.

In his 2003-2004 final budget summary, Davis included funding for the SATCU drug-treatment program for most nonviolent parole violators, and to implement a community detention program utilizing structured sanctions for parole violators. But Davis included a caveat: “I am directing the Department to develop regulations specifying that no individuals with an underlying serious or violent offense, or who have previously been convicted of a serious or violent offense will be eligible for these programs. In addition, these regulations are to specify that the community detention programs are only available if the parole violation is of a minor, technical nature.” In other words, under the Davis specifications, Timmons would not have been eligible for the SATCU program.

After Schwarzenegger took office, his own 2,000-page California Performance Review report included a lengthy section with recommendations for reforming the parole system that mostly parroted the Little Hoover Commission and other prior proposals. The performance review also advised preparing an offender for re-entry into the community starting at the beginning of the prison term and developing a more balanced force of parole agents who bring a combination of law-enforcement and social-work skills to parole operations.

Veteran CDC employee Jon King said that it is common knowledge throughout the system that parole staff felt pressured by Hickman, via the chain of command, to reduce parole revocations in order to placate the governor and the Legislature, and to produce the predicted budget savings. “Hickman won’t admit it, but extreme pressure was being put on the unit supervisors of the parole units not to violate guys, and that was the reason they were doing some really stupid decisions as far as who they were putting in [SATCU] to begin with,” he said. Parolees that are placed in SATCU instead of “violated” are not statistically counted as having a parole revocation, which, on paper, reduces the recidivism rate, according to King. “That’s the so-called recidivism that [state Senator Gloria] Romero and [the Legislature] hammer us about all the time. And so SATCU was being used to avoid revocations,” he said. CDC spokesman Kostyrko also blamed the SATCU eligibility modifications on the Legislature, which had been pressuring the CDC to put more parolees in the program.

In his memo terminating the parole-reform programs, Hickman alludes to this issue, acknowledging that parole agents were encouraged to use intermediate sanctions in lieu of parole revocation. “I have also received information that these measures were suggested as a way to save money or to reduce return rates,” Hickman concedes before issuing a convoluted non-denial. “I want to make very clear to all of you—public safety is our number one priority.”

Through YACA spokesman J.P. Tremblay, Hickman declined to be interviewed for this story. Tremblay said that although the SATCU program has been discontinued, other programs are still available to parolees. “[SATCU] just wasn’t showing that it was as effective as we intended, so we need to pull back and re-evaluate,” he said. Tremblay said he couldn’t comment on the Timmons incident because he wasn’t aware of it.

Over his 22-year career, King has been a prison guard, counselor, parole officer and union steward. He currently works at a drug-treatment facility at Corcoran State Prison for the CDC’s Office of Substance Abuse Programs, processing inmate aftercare applications. With a California State University, Fresno, Bachelor of Science degree in corrections and a master’s degree in criminology, he approaches the subject with both an academic and a real-world perspective. King believes that the SATCU program will work if it is used for the parolees it was designed for. “The criteria was supposed to be that they are using drugs and they are nonviolent, but that got stretched,” he said. “They used it as a dumping ground for almost any kind of parole violator that they could find to avoid a revocation, and, in my opinion, that’s why the program failed,” he said. King also believes that Hickman and his staff at YACA botched the SATCU plan, in part, because of inexperience. “Hickman has absolutely no experience in parole issues, and, as I understand it, there’s nobody on his executive staff that does either,” he said.

Michael Bien and Ernest Galvan also have an interest in SATCU and the other programs that made up Hickman’s new parole model. After a nine-year battle with the state, in 2003 the two attorneys settled the Valdivia case, a federal class-action lawsuit brought by thousands of parolees. The litigation began as a challenge to the parole-revocation process, which the suit claimed, and the state eventually agreed, was unconstitutional because parolees routinely were sent back to prison and held for months at a time before being notified of why they were violated and given a parole-revocation hearing as required by state law. The settlement terms require the state to give alleged parole violators a probable-cause hearing within 48 hours to determine whether they should be retained, access to a state-appointed attorney within six to eight days, and a final hearing after 35 days. The state also is required to consider whether the parolee could be given an alternative sanction, such as referral to drug treatment, instead of being sent back to prison for the violation.

But the written settlement agreement also ended up specifically incorporating the new parole model programs, including SATCU, which were supposed to be used to divert parolees out of the revocation procedure where appropriate. Galvan said that the injunction was designed to maintain public safety while allowing suitable parolees to be considered for alternative sanctions instead of return to prison. “We really wanted this injunction to work to sort out the dangerous people who need to go to prison and the not-so-dangerous people who could benefit from treatment,” he explained. Galvan said the legal team was shocked when, just months after it settled the case, the state said it was canceling SATCU and two other programs that were part of the court order. The lawyers filed a motion starting the process to have Hickman declared in contempt of court for violating the agreement.

Last week, the motion was heard in the federal courthouse downtown before veteran judge Lawrence Karlton. Karlton expressed disappointment that the parties had come back to court after such a relatively short time since the case was settled. Hickman’s attorney, Benjamin Rice, argued that the state should be allowed to cancel SATCU and the other programs because there were alternatives available to parolees. Karlton, however, seemed skeptical. “There appears to be nothing in its place, at least at the moment,” he said. The judge said he had no intention of getting involved in running the CDC’s parole programs and that he would defer to the department’s expertise but that if it wanted to cancel a program specified in the settlement agreement on the grounds that it wasn’t working, he would make that decision, “not Hickman.”

The judge said he would not pursue the request to hold Hickman in contempt of court, because the state’s actions were erroneous but not outrageous. Karlton indicated he would issue an order making it clear that the state was required to offer the parole-reform model programs in some form. But he did reassure the plaintiffs’ attorney that the mandate for the SATCU program was not subject to discussion or reinterpretation. “They can’t cancel [SATCU], and I’ll tell you in writing that they can’t do that,” he said.

Valdivia attorney Galvan wasn’t aware that the CDC had liberalized the criteria for SATCU placement last year, and, after reading the department memo that allowed almost any parolee into the drug-treatment program, he wanted to make clear that it had nothing to do with the Valdivia settlement. Galvan stressed that, under the terms of the injunction and settlement, the CDC retained control over which parolees to select for diversion from the parole-violation process and into alternative programs. Nowhere in the settlement terms is the CDC mandated to divert people who it, in its judgment, thinks are a risk to public safety. “The injunction does not give any particular parolee a right to be diverted,” he said.

Galvan said that the legal team credits the Schwarzenegger administration for its role in agreeing to end the Valdivia suit and enter into a fair settlement agreement that included some of the Little Hoover Commission recommendations to use alternative programs in lieu of parole revocations for some parole violators. “We thought, or we were led to believe, that the administration had looked at that report, looked at the nationwide information and, as part of settling this parole-revocation case, wised up to what it would take to bring California into the 21st century in parole practices. But now they’ve gotten scared politically and want to go back to a revolving-door system that doesn’t work,” Galvan said. Judge Karlton seemed to have made a similar observation at the court hearing. “It is critical that [the state] understands this is not subject to the political winds,” he said.