STILL GETTING AWAY WITH IT

THE STATE IS CATCHING MORE HALFWAY-HOUSE ABSCONDERS THAN EVER. UNFORTUNATELY, IT'S ALSO LETTING MORE CRIMINALS ESCAPE.

Denver's halfway houses are supposed to help state prisoners ease their way back into society. But for an ever-increasing number of inmates, "community corrections" facilities are simply an easy ticket to freedom.

Inmates have escaped or walked away from Denver halfway houses at a record pace this year. According to data provided by the Denver Community Corrections Board, 180 men and women have skipped out during the first six months of 1995, compared with 149 during the same period last year.

The problem is not a new one. For years now, prison overcrowding has been at a point where local community corrections boards are tossing as many inmates into halfway houses as the system--and their consciences--will bear ("No Halfway Measures," February 12, 1992). A state audit conducted in 1993 found that more than 500 felons escaped from halfway houses across the state that year--nearly twice the number posted just two years before that. And the escapes have persisted despite a new and highly efficient state program to track down getaway artists.

Rather than the catch-as-catch-can system of the past, when no one on the state payroll was assigned full-time responsibility for capturing escapees, the state now operates a special fugitive task force. That squad of headhunters, assigned to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, was established by Governor Roy Romer in July 1994 following years of bad publicity over repeated escapes. During its first eleven months of operation, the task force caught 221 fugitives. Of those, 154 were absent without leave from halfway houses. But despite the CBI's efforts, the number of escapes hasn't slowed--and the number of criminals on the loose has continued to climb.

The worst of this year's halfway-house headlines were connected to 35-year-old Ronald S. Crespin. Although Crespin had fled a Denver halfway house in 1992, he fell through the cracks because of paperwork snafus and a conviction on unrelated charges in a different county. Crespin was still at large when, on May 2 of this year, he killed a drinking buddy in Trinidad. Crespin hit the man on the head with a rock before grabbing his .25-caliber handgun and shooting him in the head.

That was only the beginning of a remarkable 24-hour crime spree. Witnesses later identified Crespin as the man who stole two trucks, staged three robberies and kidnapped three people, one of whom he is accused of sexually assaulting. He was captured in a roadblock later that day as he left the gambling town of Cripple Creek. Crespin is awaiting trial on the charges.

Critics of the community corrections system lay the blame for the large number of escapes on the halfway houses themselves, claiming that administrators aren't doing enough keep to keep tabs on inmates. And they say local community corrections boards are allowing too many high-risk inmates into minimum-security halfway houses.

The figures appear to bear that out. An examination by Westword of a representative sampling of felony escape charges filed by the Denver District Attorney's office last month reveals that nearly a quarter of the absconders had previous escapes on their rap sheets. Some had fled halfway houses on two or more occasions.

And though it isn't unusual for Denver's community corrections board to allow inmates with as many as five felony convictions into halfway houses, Westword found several instances in which inmates had racked up considerably more than that. Inmate Dennis Matter, for example, had been convicted of 25 felonies before being booked into (and escaping from) a Denver halfway house. At least four of Matter's previous convictions were for escape.

Community corrections officials acknowledge that the state's halfway houses are now dealing with a more serious and violent type of offender than ever before. "And that's the way it should be, to make the system work," argues Tom Moore, the sole paid staffer on the Denver Corrections Board.

According to the board's own figures, 45 percent of halfway-house inmates fail to successfully complete the program and are sent back to prison. Still, boardmembers say, the halfway-house lifestyle--being forced to get a job, save money and accept some responsibility--is a better option than allowing an inmate to max out his time or releasing him directly to parole, armed only with $100 in "gate money" and a one-way bus ticket out of Canon City.

Deciding who gets into halfway houses "is a lose-lose proposition for the board," says Larry Linke, a spokesman for the state's Division of Criminal Justice. "If [community corrections boards] accept only low-risk clients, those with a high probability of success, they'll probably succeed there," he says. "But those are the kind of people who don't need the supervision." Like Moore, Linke subscribes to the belief that the system should strive to achieve success with higher-risk prisoners--the people who by definition have the least interest in following rules and abiding by the law.

That philosophical stand irritates veteran Denver prosecutor Mike Little. "I've had people say that halfway houses are a great way to ease into society," he says. "But if that's the purpose of incarceration, why skip a step? Why not ease them into society to begin with?

"If community corrections is working so well," says Little, "then inmates shouldn't be escaping in record numbers. Maybe the problem isn't with easing them into society," he suggests. "Maybe they're just rotten, dirty criminals."

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