Agencies Often Lose Track of Probation, Parole Violators

September 3, 2016 Updated: September 3, 2016
FONT BFONT SText size

PITTSBURGH—Gerald Boyes died in a police shooting while officers sought him in the bludgeoning deaths of his father and his father’s girlfriend. And stories of people on the lam from their probation or parole at the time the new, alleged crimes were committed aren’t isolated.

There are thousands more cases in which criminals wanted on a probation or parole violation commit a new crime before they are captured, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation found. There are shootings, robberies, killings. Chases, assaults, even a kidnapping.

The federal government counts more than 4 million people on probation, parole or a similar program in the United States—that’s more than the number of people in all of its prisons and jails combined. In 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available, more than 350,000 probationers and parolees returned to jail—nearly 100,000 of them on new sentences.

Research shows that addressing violations quickly reduces the chance that probationers and parolees will go on to commit new crimes.

Yet a Post-Gazette review of records from some of the country’s largest counties found that it often takes officials months to track down violators.

Even in one of the top-performing places, Hennepin County in Minnesota, it took an average of 43 days to arrest a probation violator. In one of the slowest, Pima County in Arizona, it took more than twice that amount of time—91 days on average.

The Post-Gazette sought records on warrants issued in the 50 largest counties in 2013 and 2014 and received usable data from 17 of them. The lack of available data reveals the low priority the problem is receiving across the United States. There is almost no research focusing on efforts to track down people wanted on violation warrants.

The systems for monitoring people on probation and parole are so scattered, so poorly documented and so varied that it is extremely difficult to gather and compare data in a meaningful way.

Some agencies, such as the Nevada Department of Public Safety, only keep lists of people currently wanted on warrants, and said they would have to sort through thousands of case files to get past data. Other agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Superior Court, work on decades-old computer systems that make it difficult to extract information.

Many offices are stymied by budget constraints. In many cases, counties don’t have a person or a unit dedicated solely to tracking down violators. In some of those counties, officials don’t have a complete picture of how many people go on to commit new crimes while under their supervision.

“I suspect most probation departments. (if) somebody doesn’t show up, they issue a warrant and they wait for the police to pick them up,” said Edward Latessa, a longtime researcher based at the University of Cincinnati. “They figure, eventually, they’re going to do something.”

Chapter 1: Missed Chances—The Gerald Boyes Case

Gerald Boyes Jr. missed two meetings with his parole officer.

It was his second time on parole for robbery in Florida. He’d been sent back to prison before because he kept getting arrested. A warrant was issued.

Little else happened—until detectives were called to his father’s home in rural Kentucky this past April.

His father had been bludgeoned with a hammer in the back yard. His father’s longtime partner lay dead on the floor inside, surrounded by blood.

Detectives tried to reach Boyes to inform him of the deaths. They grew suspicious when he didn’t return their calls, said McCracken County, Kentucky, Sheriff Jon Hayden.

A quick check revealed that Boyes was wanted for a parole violation in Florida. McCracken County Detective Captain Matt Carter and his partner were driving to Florida to try to find Boyes when one of them ran his name through a database that includes the names of people who sell items at pawn shops. Boyes, they said, had just sold his father’s distinctive Harley Davidson wallet—which was missing from the crime scene.

They made a U-turn and began driving north, toward the pawn shop outside Chicago.

“That was huge,” Carter said. “That was one big piece of evidence that tied him to the double homicide and also gave us his whereabouts.”

He said that same database also showed that Boyes had pawned jewelry near Chicago a week or two prior—within days of his violation warrant being issued.

The database, Carter said, is updated frequently. It might have been possible to find the Chicago-areas sale before the killings.

Florida parole officers don’t have access to that database, which is run by a private company. Hayden said he paid about $1,200 for his officers to access it during one year.

Boyes’ supervising officer, who was also responsible for monitoring more than 50 other people, “did not have knowledge the offender was in the Chicago area at the time,” said Alberto Moscoso, spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections.

Records from the department show that Boyes’ parole officer did a records check to see if Boyes had been arrested again. They show she visited his home and left a voicemail on his cell phone. They show no other efforts to find him until April 16—when he died in a confrontation with police in Antioch, Illinois.

“I don’t really have faith in the system at all,” said Don Potter, Boyes’ stepbrother. “There were some serious missteps there.”

Police found Boyes in a rental car near a bar in northern Illinois. Officials said police fired on Boyes as he raised a gun to his head and fired a single shot.

Had he survived, Sheriff Hayden said, he “absolutely” would have been charged in the double killing.

Chapter 2: In Pennsylvania, Similar Stories

There have been similar cases in Western Pennsylvania.

Frederick Harris III, who’s awaiting trial on charges that he dismembered his mother and her husband, eluded arrest on a parole violation warrant for about nine months prior to the 2014 killings.

That same year, Kerrese Lawrence, who was on probation for a drug charge, was arrested for new crimes and bailed out. Officials encountered him multiple times in court and during a police stop but didn’t detain him. Instead, they scheduled violation hearings—one of which he skipped.

That spring, police charged him with killing his pregnant girlfriend. They obtained a warrant after the woman’s death.

It took Allegheny County officials about 82 days on average to catch probation or parole violators under their supervision, according to a Post-Gazette analysis of court data. It was slower than all but five counties in the paper’s analysis.

Statistics show that people who commit crimes often reoffend. About three out of every four people arrested on a felony had prior arrests, according to one study of state court data published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Yet there is little research looking at probation and parole violators and the time it takes agencies to track them.

Studies dating back to at least the 1980s have shown that the swiftness and certainty of punishment are key to reducing new crimes.

University of Wyoming professor Eric Wodahl found in research published in recent years that, if handled correctly, punishments that involve community service or electronic monitoring can be just as effective as jail time.

“Immediacy does matter,” Wodahl said of consequences. “For them to be the most effective, they need to be certain that it’s going to happen.”

Allegheny County Sheriff’s Sgt. Doug Clark logs locations the deputies visit each day, noting where they found fugitives and where they struck out.

The Allegheny County Adult Probation Office does not have anyone dedicated to finding violators. Instead, it relies on the county sheriff’s office to track them down.

But the sheriff’s office also has to track down people wanted on other warrants issued by the courts—such as those issued for people who skipped their trials or dodged hearings for failing to pay child support.

Estimates put the number of outstanding warrants somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000, but Sheriff William P. Mullen said he’s never received a reliable number.

The sheriff’s office has 12 deputies and three supervisors dedicated to finding fugitives. It’s common for them to get pulled to help guard courtrooms when others are on vacation, especially during the summer, when some veteran officers can take three weeks off. The sheriff said shifting some deputies from the fugitive offices to courtrooms reduces overtime.

“We’re really scrambling to stay under budget,” he said.

Police officers can also arrest people on probation violation warrants. All officers have access to a national database that tracks warrants, but Mullen said officers in some local departments fail to run those checks on people they encounter. It’s not unheard of, he said, for deputies to arrest someone on a violation warrant and learn that they had interactions with other officers a few days prior.

The sheriff said he’s pushed for the creation of a county-wide database that would allow his detectives to see more information about stops made by other departments.

But such a system wouldn’t completely solve the problem. Fugitives can leave the county or state.

Chapter 3: When Fugitives Cross State Lines

Antonio Covington eluded arrest on a Georgia probation violation warrant for five months, despite being arrested in North Carolina where he was known to spend time.

Authorities never found him—until police suspect he killed a man in Charlotte, N.C.

He’s not the only example of someone who left the state and became a repeat offender elsewhere. A man wanted on an Illinois parole violation warrant was charged this spring with shooting a man in Iowa. A Pennsylvania man eluded authorities for three years despite multiple arrests in North Carolina.

These stories highlight the ways in which probationers and parolees avoid detection by leaving the states in which they were convicted—sometimes with little effort to hide their identity.

Covington’s Georgia case dates to July 30, 2013, when someone called 911 to report that a man was driving erratically. A police officer stopped the car and found multiple drugs and guns, which Covington was prohibited from owning.

Covington later pleaded guilty to gun and drug violations, and a Gwinnett County judge ordered him to spend time at a drug treatment facility and then participate in an aftercare treatment program as a condition of probation.

Covington got kicked out of the aftercare program July 7, 2015 “due to non-attendance.” A probation officer obtained a warrant a month and a half later.

Delays sometimes occur when people are sentenced in one county and supervised in another. Covington’s latest address was in Fulton County, about a half hour away. Violation paperwork for someone supervised in Gwinnett County would have to be completed by a Gwinnett County officer, according to Georgia officials.

In the interim, Covington was arrested in North Carolina for illegally possessing a prescription drug and posted bail in the case. The Georgia probation violation warrant makes no mention of North Carolina or his new arrest.

Bert Flewellen, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Community Supervision, said he was not permitted to discuss individual cases under state law.

He said probation officers do have the resources to conduct records checks on the people under their supervision and do so “at random, for-cause, and at designated milestones during supervision.”

Probation officers can file additional paperwork in court if they learn of new arrests after a violation warrant has been issued. That paperwork was not filed in Covington’s case.

Covington appeared again March 31 of this year, when police say surveillance cameras spotted him and another man dumping 19-year-old Ernest Cash Jr. at a Charlotte, North Carolina, hospital. Cash, who had been shot, died the next day.

Police later charged Covington and another man with killing Cash.

Chapter 4: How to Catch a Fugitive

The probation department in Hennepin County, Minn., one of the top-performing jurisdictions, is run by a former law enforcement officer.

“What keeps me up at night is whether or not (violators) are out committing a crime, so this is a very high priority for our department,” said Chester Cooper, who worked for years in the local sheriff’s office before he joined the Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Cooper and his predecessor created a position that exists in few others departments: They have one officer whose sole job is to work with other local agencies to track violators.

Officer Beth Heidmann works out of the local sheriff’s office. Each day, she gathers a list of fugitives and digs through their case files, social media accounts and other sources to find leads on their whereabouts. She passes the information along to other officers who will do the actual arrests.

She has access to dozens of members of the sheriff’s office, members of a federal fugitive task force and anyone she can contact at other departments.

Here, it takes officials an average of 43 days to arrest someone on a county probation violation warrant.

“I’m concerned about the 43, so we need to work on that,” said Cooper, the director, after he learned the results of the Post-Gazette analysis.

Before Heidmann’s position existed, the office relied on two officers with few resources to catch the fugitives. Cooper and his predecessor abandoned that system out of concerns for the officers’ safety.

That system rejected in Minnesota is similar to one that is currently being used in Pima County, Ariz., where officials take more than twice as long to capture fugitives on average.

Ken McCulloch, director of field services for Pima County Adult Probation, said he didn’t think it was fair to compare his department to many others in the country. Pima County officers can arrest people without a warrant and often issue warrants when they don’t know the whereabouts of someone they’re supervising, he said. Hennepin County officials said they like to reserve warrants only for people whose whereabouts are unknown or who are especially dangerous.

Among the people tasked with finding fugitives in Pima County is Officer Mark Echavarry. He’s part of a two-person team that works to arrest people who are being supervised for domestic violence cases. Their positions are grant-funded and their resources are limited.

Echavarry and his partner work alone in an old, rusted sedan that was seized as part of a prior investigation. They don’t have lights and sirens. They don’t have bars in the back of the car, so if anyone fights arrest they have to call local police to take them to jail.

He spends some of his time tracking down violators, but also has to juggle meetings and compliance checks. They also have to do background work before heading out on cases.

On one day in May, he only had time to make one stop, where he caught a probation violator. But he had at least four new warrants waiting for him when he returned to the office.

Echavarry says he’s asked for more resources in the past but hasn’t received them.

“It’s a sticking point with us,” he said.

Chapter 5: Failure to Issue Warrants Quickly

While research shows rapid consequences can help prevent probationers or parolees from committing new crimes, officers will at times hold off on filing warrants. They hope the people they are supervising will start following the rules again and avoid jail.

But that doesn’t always work.

Francisco Fernandez, 23, missed a drug test in November, officials said, and met in person with his probation officer the following month. Fernandez, who was on probation for a drug case, then missed four more drug tests and moved without the permission of his probation officer, according to court records.

He later told a police officer “he hasn’t reported because he wanted to get his (medical) marijuana card first,” according to a police report.

The Pima County Adult Probation Department’s policy gives officers 90 days to try to locate many probationers after their last face-to-face contact with them. For people who have been deemed especially likely to reoffend, the window is tighter—three days.

“Jumping on that warrant immediately, for a relatively low-level offender, may not get the benefit,” McCulloch said, noting that some people might need time to get sober or do other things for their well-being.

One hundred seventeen days passed before an officer filed a request to revoke Fernandez’s probation.

During that time, the officer visited addresses for Ferndandez, left a voicemail for him and sent him a certified letter.

A week after the request, on April 12, the court issued the warrant. Warrants like the one issued to Fernandez normally go to the department’s absconder team. Fernandez’s officer decided to hold onto the warrant because he “was hearing things that the probationer was in the vicinity and might turn up,” McCulloch said. “Looking at the case notes, I don’t see any (indications) that he was checking other residences or physically following up.”

Police found Fernandez April 27, when they responded to a call that a 7-year-old boy had been shot at an apartment building. The boy, the nephew of Fernandez’s girlfriend, survived.

Fernandez gave differing accounts of the shooting during an interview with police. During the last one, he said, “I think the gun was loaded and I accidentally pulled it,” according to a police report.

McCulloch said he was comfortable with the way his officer handled the Fernandez case.

“He was kind of doing a wait and see thing.”