The typical pattern with newspaper investigations is alarming revelation, followed by official denial. So it's doubly alarming when the official reaction is suggesting the problem is even worse than reported.
That's what happened this week with regard to paroled sex offenders in California.
The Los Angeles Times reported that more than 3,400 parolees had removed or disarmed their GPS monitors since October 2011. The vast majority are high-risk sex offenders, the inmates most likely to be fitted with tracking devices as a condition of parole.
A day later, state corrections officials said the Times may have understated the problem.
"We're trying to get a better picture right now," a Corrections Department spokeswoman said, noting that the news report counted only those cases in which parole revocation hearings were held.
The tampering problem coincides with the beginning of the state's realignment program, which shifted some inmates to county jails to comply with a federal court order to relieve crowding in state prisons. Among those who now serve their time in jail are parole violators.
In the 12 months after realignment took effect, the Times reported, the state issued 28 percent more arrest warrants for parolees who tampered with their GPS devices than in the previous 12 months.
The penalty for violating parole is a return trip to the stony lonesome, but the statistics suggest that parolees believe they can snip their ankle bracelets without much risk.
Why? For starters, the state is still struggling to comply with the federal court order. Some counties also are under order to reduce jail crowding, so many parole violators are released quickly. For those who stay in jail, the maximum penalty is six months.
The risk to the public is obvious — one of these convicted sex-offenders will strike again.
It would be easy to call for longer sentences and to carve an exception in realignment to ensure that sex offenders return to prison if they don't comply with parole requirements.
Ultimately, that may be the answer. One state senator already has introduced a bill to make that change.
"Research shows that when a sex offender is not being monitored by a GPS device, the offender's chances of committing a new sex crime increases threefold," said state Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance. But as Gov. Jerry Brown pointed out in response to a question about Lieu's bill, "Everybody wants to send people to prison, nobody wants to pay for it."
That's the real challenge.
Realignment is a work in progress, an experiment, not an end product. All the stakeholders — the governor, the Legislature, local government — need to acknowledge that. They also must continuously review how it's working, whether it's adequately funded and how it can be improved.
Public safety depends on it.