Offered ‘reward,’ 150 fugitives get handcuffs instead of cheques

Fugitives lie on the floor as they are arrested in a sting operation at the auditorium at the California State Building in Oakland, Calif. on May 15, 2010.

SACRAMENTO, CALIF.—California corrections officials dangled an attractive offer Saturday before hundreds of parolees who have become fugitives: Turn yourself in, get a $200 reward and qualify for an amnesty program.

About 150 who showed up were sorry they did.

Instead of getting a cheque, they soon found themselves in handcuffs and, for most, headed back to state prison for violating their parole.

Agents set up the elaborate ruse with its own website and email account. They appointed an agent to the fictitious post of “amnesty program director.” They sent 2,700 letters to relatives of parolees-at-large advertising the reward and fake amnesty program.

The sting was aimed at some of the more than 14,000 California ex-convicts who broke off contact with their parole agents, are suspected of committing new crimes or of violating terms of their parole.

It was an updated variation on an old bait-and-switch. In the past, agents have reeled in fugitives with fake notices that they had won cash or prizes but needed to show up at a certain location to collect.

“Using the web page and such is a new way to do it. We used to play on the greed, and now we’re playing on the promise that they might be released from custody,” said Tony Chaus, who runs the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Office of Correctional Safety.

Corrections officials confirmed the ruse after The Associated Press learned of it independently.

The offer had the hollow ring of truth, piggybacking on the state’s colossal budget deficit and a bona fide state law that took effect in January.

The law creates a new non-revocable parole for some offenders who are considered to be less dangerous. Those on non-revocable parole don’t have to report to parole agents, are free to come and go as they please, and can’t be sent back to prison unless they are convicted of a new crime.

The fugitives were told they would either be put on non-revocable parole or discharged from parole entirely to help the state cut costs and prison crowding.

“If you have received a letter, you are pre-qualified for Amnesty or Discharge,” read the offer posted on the website. “Your warrant will be cancelled and a $200.00 check will be issued…. A Non Revocable Parole card will be issued and you will be free to go.”

The amnesty ended Saturday, warned the website, and parolees-at-large were told they “must call for reservations.”

It worked better than officials had hoped.

About 130 felons made appointments, and another 20 showed up unannounced at the Oakland parole office, some with family members in tow.

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