STILL GETTING AWAY WITH IT

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

Jaquay next pilots his unmarked car to Adams County, looking for a man who escaped from Denver's Alpha Center halfway house. From his mug shot, the fugitive, Ron Phinney, is handsome in a scruffy kind of way. But he's not particularly likable. Jaquay says Phinney is a white supremacist "and he do like his drugs." There's no sign of Phinney, but Jaquay does get a glimpse of one of Phinney's relatives who lives in the house. The agent makes a mental note of the man's physical description and heads back to Denver.

Many fugitives, Phinney included, change their appearance early and often, adopting new hairstyles and colors, growing or shaving off facial hair, losing weight, gaining weight. Agents look for scars, small facial defects or tattoos to aid in their identification of a suspect. But even that method isn't always foolproof.

One fugitive, Jaquay remembers, was reported to have his last name tattooed on his chest. By the time the fugitive squad met up with him, the man had gained so much weight that the name was emblazoned across his stomach. Another man gave agents pause when he claimed to be his own twin brother.

Jaquay's next stop of the day is in north central Denver, where he checks out a tiny house with pink flamingos on the lawn. The fugitive he's seeking, a suspected gang member, fled from a halfway house six or seven months ago. The house belongs to his mother. Nobody's home.

The CBI's stealth tactics sometimes backfire. Neighbors have phoned police to report a suspicious car (the CBI's), and officers dutifully respond, blowing any hope of maintaining a low profile on the block.

Other times the job is easier. Agents nabbed one man within three hours of the time he fled the Alpha Center. They found him at a nearby Burger King, working his regular shift. He'd run away and gone directly to work.

When Colorado's community corrections system was established in the late 1970s, the public was told that halfway houses were for first-time offenders and nonviolent offenders such as burglars, forgers and car thieves. However, the citizenship credentials of the residents has steadily declined since the program's inception. Community corrections boards have thrown open the doors to murderers, sex offenders and armed robbers.

Longtime halfway-house critic Lucille Ray says the public has been hornswoggled. Halfway houses today, says Ray, are merely a "dumping ground for people who should be in prison.

"What I want them to do," she says of inmates, "is to serve every single solitary day the judge has given them."

Like prosecutor Little, Ray doesn't buy into the theory that society is better off testing inmates in halfway houses before dropping them back on the community. "I don't think $100 and a bus ticket or a halfway house is going to change them," she says. "They've either learned to want to change or they won't do it."

A major cause for the public furor over halfway-house inmates was the escape and subsequent crime spree of Steven Staley. In 1989, Staley was living in Denver's Williams Street halfway house and had a job working for another inmate, James Davis. Working directly for another inmate is taboo, but that somehow escaped the attention of the halfway-house staffers. Police later came to suspect that Staley and Davis were committing armed robberies while still living at the halfway house. Staley escaped in September that year and three days later killed Davis, reportedly in a dispute over money.

Staley and two other companions then embarked on a multistate crime spree, committing robberies as they went. They eventually landed in Fort Worth, where a botched robbery ended in Staley shooting to death restaurant manager Bob Read, who left behind a wife and four children.

Last year Read's family won a $1 million lawsuit against the Williams Street center. It wasn't the only successful suit filed against a local halfway house. In 1992 an Arapahoe County community corrections center was taken to court by the family of a woman slain by an inmate. That case was quickly settled; the amount of the award was undisclosed.

Denver has the most halfway houses--nine, with a tenth on the way--of any county in the state. It also sends more people to prison than any other county--approximately one quarter of the inmates currently incarcerated in the state prison system. Unfortunately, says Linke, a full one third of the prison population decides to settle in Denver after being released.

As a consequence, the occupancy rate in the Denver program hovers around 98 percent, and more than 20 percent of the state's $23 million annual community corrections budget goes to support Denver houses. (The state pays a per diem of $32 to the halfway houses for each inmate bed, and the residents themselves are responsible for chipping in another $10 per day to offset the cost of their room and board. By comparison, a prison bed costs the state $50 to $60 a day.)

In Denver, as in all of the state's judicial districts, inmates can be referred to halfway houses in different ways. "Diversion" clients are sentenced to halfway houses by a judge in lieu of prison time. "Transitional clients" are referred to community corrections boards by the state Department of Corrections. The DOC sends boards the names of all nonviolent inmates who are within sixteen months of their parole eligibility date. If considered violent, inmates must be within six months of their parole eligibility date to be referred. The Denver board has no provision for rejecting inmates based on the number of felonies for which they've been convicted, though Denver board chairwoman Jane Prancan says an inmate's criminal history is taken into consideration.

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