A plethora of halfway houses has turned west Mesa into a destination spot for felons, and Mesa’s new police chief announced plans Thursday for a “hard-core enforcement approach” that will track the “baddest of the bad.”
“We’re an easy target,” Mesa police Chief George Gascón told the City Council during a study session Thursday.
To fix the problem, Gascón said he will launch a violentfelon police unit that will track felons who come to Mesa from state prisons. He said the unit will track many inmates even before they are let out on parole.
The unit will face a daunting task.
Mesa has more halfway houses than Phoenix and more than all other East Valley cities combined.
Gascón said his staff has counted at least 75 transitional living facilities that house parolees in Mesa, with most of these homes clustered in lowincome neighborhoods west of Gilbert Road. The state lists only 48 halfway houses for all of Phoenix. These numbers do not include assisted living facilities or halfway houses not approved by the state. Since most halfway houses are not licensed in Arizona, overall numbers are hard to track.
Gascón told the City Council that his intelligence officers estimate roughly 60 percent of all felons leaving state pris- ons pour into Mesa — a number that state Department of Corrections officials deny.
Gascón acknowledged his estimates may be high and have not yet been verified.
He said many felons leaving prison are likely to commit another crime within 72 hours — another number state prison officials challenge.
Nevertheless, Mesa police statistics show a higher number of calls for service in the areas surrounding the city’s halfway houses.
And these areas show higher rates of homicide, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, stolen vehicles, theft and burglary.
Gascón said the number of felons flocking to Mesa is “completely unacceptable.”
He also raised concerns that most of these halfway houses are not regulated by the state, which makes it difficult for police to know the quality of the homes’ operators.
Gascón did not release the number of officers who will be assigned to the new unit, but he said the group will involve a collaboration among federal agents and parole assistants.
The unit will not just focus on areas around halfway houses, Gascón said. Officers will take a broad approach to identify trouble spots.
“This squad will concentrate on the baddest of the bad,” Gascón said.
But Katie Decker, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, took issue with some of Gascón’s claims.
While the state list of approved halfway houses is roughly equivalent in number to Mesa’s count, she said that felons on parole in Mesa do not account for anywhere near 60 percent of the state’s total.
As of Thursday, she said there are 5,930 people on parole or community supervision statewide. Of those, she said 1,176 live in Mesa, and only 345 of those are living in halfway houses.
Phoenix, by contrast, has 1,953 people on parole or community supervision.
Over the past three years, she said only about one in four felons returns to prison after being released.
Decker noted that 345 parolees in Mesa halfway houses is not an outrageous number, considering the system released 40 felons on Thursday alone.
Gascón said he also believes Mesa receives many people after they are released from county facilities as well.