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STILL GETTING AWAY WITH IT

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

The Denver board's nineteen members are all unpaid volunteers, most of whom have a criminal justice background. The only paid position belongs to staffer Tom Moore, who answers to Denver Manager of Safety Fidel "Butch" Montoya.

No one who owns a halfway house is on the board. But an argument could be made that conflicts of interest do exist. Jeaneene Miller, for example, heads the DOC's division of community corrections. She says that her first priority is public safety but that as a state employee and community representative, she can't ignore the facts of prison overcrowding and the stresses it places on the entire judicial system.

Community corrections personnel maintain that it's impossible to eliminate the risk of escape--or an inmate's potential for committing new crimes. Denver corrections chief John Simonet, who sits on the Denver community corrections board, notes that the state's prison population has a greater percentage of hardened criminals than ever before. Judges are sentencing nonviolent offenders to probation whenever possible, he says, meaning that community corrections boards are forced to fill halfway houses with an increasingly violent clientele.

According to Chris Williams, assistant executive director of the Stout Street Foundation (which owns and operates Alpha House), people need to put the concept of community corrections in context. "The press," he says, "does not deal with reality. When someone escapes from a halfway house, the press acts like it's the biggest news in the city. Like it's a moon landing.

"They are inmates," Williams says of his charges, "and we try to control them as best we can. I can't--and haven't--told neighbors that I can absolutely keep them safe. Our job is to help them back into the community. You can't predict behavior."

The people the community really should worry about, Williams adds, are the criminals who aren't in halfway houses. "The guys running around killing police officers, robbing, raping, looting and doing drive-by shootings are the ones you have to watch out for," he says. "I'll tell you something--halfway-house residents are not out there doing drive-bys."

Escapes from halfway houses bear little resemblance to prison breakouts. They occur without lights and sirens. There are no bloodhounds and no filing through bars--because there are no bars in halfway houses. With the exception of the county jail's Phase 1 halfway program, inmates are permitted to come and go (though they're supposed to get permission first).

House personnel conduct spot checks and bed checks to see that their wards are where they're supposed to be. Inmates must find a job within thirty days after arriving in the program or face expulsion and a return to prison. They must save money, pay a subsistence fee and, if required, make payments for child support or court-ordered restitution. Staffers also conduct random drug tests. And the houses take the prospect of escape seriously. Two hours after someone shows up late or can't be located, their name is turned over to the Colorado State Patrol and the CBI.

Community corrections specialists also argue that many inmates said to have escaped are in fact "walkaways" who eventually return to the facility on their own. According to Jeaneene Miller, 69 DOC inmates walked away from Denver halfway houses between January and June of this year. (They were not, however, counted as escapees.) Of the 89 DOC clients the Denver community corrections board did list as absconders during that time, Miller says, 70 represented true escapes--and she says only 10 of those people remained at large as of two weeks ago. Miller says she can't account for the 19 remaining "escapees"; she suspects they were temporarily AWOL.

However one chooses to interpret the data, the number of halfway-house absconders is clearly on the rise. And Chris Williams points his finger squarely at the state's Code of Penal Discipline. Those regulations, Williams says, simply aren't harsh enough. If an inmate escapes, he says, the most the DOC can do is take away 45 days of administrative "good time," the system by which inmates typically get ten days per month off their sentence for good behavior. That's not much of a deterrent. A judge can also sentence an escapee to serve up to a year in prison for felony escape. But with time off for good behavior, the offender could end up spending just four to six months behind bars.

In Indiana, where Williams worked at a halfway house before moving to Colorado, the penal code carried a big stick. If an inmate was found guilty of escape, he would lose one full year of good time--the equivalent of almost two extra years in prison. That not only got inmates' attention but was a money-saver for Indiana's judicial system.

Williams has tried unsuccessfully for years to interest lawmakers and Colorado's DOC in toughening the Code of Penal Discipline. In the meantime, the statewide Community Corrections Coalition, an association of halfway-house directors, has been plugging away at "filling holes legislatively," says Peg Ackerman, a lobbyist for the group. The coalition has worked to improve the reporting of probation absconders and has reached an agreement with prosecutors to try escape cases separately, rather than merely allowing offenders to serve out the remainder of their original prison terms. Prosecutors have promised to seek additional one-year sentences on charges of felony escape.

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