What Do Parole Officers Do?

And why didn’t one notice that Phillip Garrido had a kidnapped teenager living in his backyard?

Phillip Garrido (left), Jaycee Dugard (center), and Nancy Garrido (right)

Phillip Garrido, the California man accused of kidnapping Jaycee Dugard and keeping her in his backyard for 18 years, had been monitored by parole officers since 1988, when he was released from prison for a prior rape and kidnapping. A spokesman for the state parole agency said its agents performed their duties appropriately and visited the home two to three times per month. What normally happens when a parole officer drops in for a visit?

He or she chats with the parolee and other members of the household and does a walk-through of the home. Each officer is given a fair amount of discretion over when to make a home visit and how thoroughly to search the premises. When he does show up, he’ll ask the parolee how his job is going, what he does on the weekends, how the family is doing, and whether he’s staying away from the old crowd. During the walk-through, the officer looks for items that suggest parole violations, such as weapons, drug paraphernalia, alcohol, indicia of gang activity, literature from fringe groups, and pornography. If the walk-through triggers concern, the officer is supposed to conduct a more thorough search, sometimes with the assistance and protection of the police. He might also request a urine sample for drug screening.

Not all home visits are the same. Officers can show up unannounced, often in the middle of the night, to make sure the parolee is keeping curfew. (Many agencies use GPS devices to enforce curfew and ensure that parolees aren’t going to places they shouldn’t.) They’re also supposed to visit while their charge is away, to see whether other members of the household have anything different to say out of the parolee’s earshot. Interviews with employers, neighbors, and family are also part of the process. In the case of a sex offender, for example, the officer might ask the neighbors whether they have noticed any children hanging around the residence. Officers try to be careful in conducting these interviews, because they don’t want to undermine the parolee’s reintegration by frightening his boss and friends.

The officer keeps a running file of all contacts made and information gathered, good and bad. If there were a serious violation, such as a positive drug test or an unauthorized weapon in the home, he would report it to the parole board, which can revoke parole or impose new conditions. The board may also ask the officer to increase the frequency of inspections.

The appropriate caseload of a parole officer is a topic of much debate in the field. The average California parole officer carries 70 cases, but each one can have anywhere from 30 to 200 at one time, depending on how much supervision his charges require. Rates of recidivism might go down if each parole officer had a lighter case load. But r esearch suggests (PDF) that there would be even better outcomes with improved management techniques—like vocational training and substance abuse treatment for the parolees.

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Explainer thanks Heather Groll of the New York State Division of Parole and Carl Wicklund of the American Probation and Parole Association.