Mistakes happen. As callous as that sounds, this one contributed to the death of Shannon Colllins.
And as horrifying as the cold-blooded murder of the 38-year-old local woman by a paroled convict with mental issues was for this community, casting all the blame at the state parole department for releasing Charles Edwards early because of a clerical error, probably misses the bigger issues.
Edwards should have remained locked up much longer — and absolutely not released because of bureaucratic requirement.
What happened sounds like one of those twisted series of small and fateful decisions that can spiral into a catastrophe. Edwards, a San Francisco native with a long criminal history that included several stays at state mental hospitals, had been know to act violently, toward family members including his mother and strangers. When he was paroled in November 2010, he was diverted to Atascadero State Hospital, after prison officials said his schizophrenia made him too dangerous to simply release. After that, Edwards was sent last fall to a program in Manteca, where his medication and activities still could be monitored.
Edwards, according to his older brother, was “scared” to face a full release from institutionalization and requested to be returned to the state hospital system — a move that was approved by parole officials.
But because of a clerical error involving the date of a mandatory review, parole officials had to release him in January from the state mental hospital where he was held. Months later, he ended up in Santa Cruz, first at a homeless shelter, then on to the streets where on May 7 he killed Collins in a shocking mid-day, unprovoked stabbing.
While the state didn’t put the knife in Edwards’ hand, in a way this has already happened. Admirably, a top parole official traveled here to tell local law enforcement leaders and Collins’ family about the mistake, and said the department realizes the tragic horror unfolded because Edwards was no longer in confinement.
Yet, and it almost goes without saying, the law that led to Edwards’ release is shockingly obtuse. Edwards had been given a three-year parole term. As a state-designated “mentally disordered offender,” he was supposed to serve that term at a state mental hospital. But state law also says that offenders with mental problems are entitled to a discharge review after one year — and that if the hearing isn’t held at that time, the parolee must be released.
Edwards’ one year review was supposed to be last November, but a state corrections worker mistakenly typed an April 2012 date into the parolee’s computerized file.
Other such data entry errors have occurred involving paroled criminals. And in yet another fateful twists in this tragedy, state lawmakers worked on a bill to eliminate automatic hearings like the one scheduled for Edwards.
This Senate bill dealt with a number of issues resulting from the state’s prison realignment, which has shifted responsibility for non-violent offenders to local authorities.
Of course, Edwards is not a non-violent offender and it doesn’t take retrospect to realize he should not have been on the streets.
If anything good came out of the death of Shannon Collins, it was this: A renewed realization that government regulations cannot be mindlessly enforced but rather have to keep the public safe from violent criminals.
This post was updated July 5, 2012