Open-records victory

A local reporter wins access to previously denied documents under Proposition 59

Jeanne Woodford is director of the California Department of Corrections (CDC), which recently was ordered to release parolee records to reporter Stephen James.

Jeanne Woodford is director of the California Department of Corrections (CDC), which recently was ordered to release parolee records to reporter Stephen James.

Photo By Stephen James

When reporter Stephen James decided he wanted to write a story for SN&R about recently paroled inmates, California voters had not yet decided to expand their access to government information with Proposition 59.

Two weeks ago, James was the first Californian to successfully win a court case granting access to government information under the new-and-improved open-records initiative approved by voters in November. Proposition 59 was also the impetus for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger releasing his daily calendar last month.

But it was a long journey before James could claim victory and finally pursue his original story idea, to find out what’s wrong with the state’s troubled parole system.

In November 2003, the Little Hoover Commission, which makes policy recommendations to the state Legislature, reported that it was in California’s best interest to do a better job of preparing paroled inmates for the real world.

“I read that report and said, ‘You know, I’m going to write about that,’” said James. “'I’m going to track a small group of parolees from the time they get out and see how they do, see what kind of support they receive, what kind of services they get, if any.’”

To get started, James needed the cooperation of a handful of recently paroled prisoners, so he asked the California Department of Corrections (CDC) for the names and addresses of the 125 inmates paroled from the Mule Creek State Prison in December 2003. He used the California Public Records Act (CPRA) to justify his request.

The CDC refused to release the information, saying California’s privacy laws protected the personal identities and addresses of all parolees, but the department’s Web site told reporters otherwise.

“They turned me down, and I told them their reasons contradict what’s on the media page of their Web site,” said James. “It said verbatim that they can release an inmate’s name, age, birthplace, previous address and other information.”

James also disputed the CDC’s legal basis of using the Information Practices Act (IPA) as a privacy smokescreen to deny access to public information.

He wrote in a letter to the department, “The IPA does not trump the California Public Records Act … in fact, it defers to it.”

One CDC communications-office staffer, spokeswoman Terry Thornton, even went so far as to write James in an e-mail that the list of parolees he was looking for “does not exist and the California Public Records Act does not obligate State agencies to create documents.”

James, who once filed suit against the Department of Motor Vehicles to get access to payroll records, smelled a lawsuit and called James Chadwick, a Bay Area attorney who, James joked, “sometimes does pro bono work for indigent reporters.”

Chadwick, who is one of the authors of Proposition 59, was willing to look at the case, in part because he was troubled by the reasons the CDC used to deny James’ request.

“Let’s just say the opposition is not the clearest I’ve ever seen,” Chadwick said. “They seem to say it’s an issue of the parolees’ privacy interests, but it’s not entirely clear. Their primary argument seems to be that it was just too much work for them to comply.”

Chadwick does a lot of what he calls “media access work,” and to him, James had a noteworthy case. “You can’t say on one hand that the information is something you’ll make public and then, when someone comes forward, say, ‘Oh. Oh, no. Sorry. It’s too much work,’” he explained.

Chadwick won the case two days before Christmas. The court ruled to grant James access to parolees’ names and addresses before January 28, which means he soon will be writing letters to paroled inmates and following up on his original story idea.

Chadwick, for his part, also is entitled to ask the state to pay for the legal fees, which, according to James, could cost more than $50,000.

CDC spokeswoman Margot Bach, who had not heard about the ruling, said the department would comply fully with the judge’s decision. The department does have 20 days to appeal.

It is still unclear whether anyone working for the CDC will be held accountable for denying James’ original request for the parolees’ information and forcing the issue into lengthy court proceedings.

James believes the CDC should look closely at employees who deny public-information requests: “I’m not saying someone needs to be punished, but the CDC should at least investigate to see if incompetence or inefficiency is to blame for denying my request.”

The CDC’s new disciplinary system—titled the “disciplinary matrix”—calls for penalties against employees who fail to meet a basic level of productivity and who perform their duties inadequately. Bach said the department would look into remedial action against any employees on a case-by-case basis.

As for James, he has an investigative report on the treatment of recently paroled inmates to research and write.

“I won’t be knocking on doors or anything, just sending out letters to paroled inmates, doing what I originally intended to do,” explained James. “I want to follow the whole parole process—from when they get out of prison to when they’re finally reintegrated.”

Chadwick says helping James get in touch with parolees was a valuable way of putting Proposition 59 to the test.

“Stephen’s point is not to write about parolees, but to write about the parole system: how it’s succeeding, how it’s failing,” said Chadwick. “Without talking to individual parolees, or at least writing to them, you can’t do that.”