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."

Governor Romer was in the midst of a re-election battle in July 1994 when he became the object of negative headlines and stinging editorials for his apparent lack of action in dealing with halfway-house escapes. Romer had been shut down just the year before when he asked the legislature to fund a fugitive task force. But this time, with gubernatorial opponents breathing down his neck, Romer announced he was establishing a task force that would work under the auspices of the CBI. The proposal would cost nothing, because he planned to "borrow" state employees from the parole department, the probation department, community corrections and the CBI.

Up to that point, the only metro-area groups actively searching full-time for people with outstanding felony warrants were members of the Denver Police Fugitive Unit and the Metro Fugitive Task Force. Halfway-house escapees, though, weren't always high on the wanted list--not with more than 16,000 outstanding felony warrants still active statewide.

The task force was up and running less than two months after Romer's announcement. And since that time, the five-member unit has put away hundreds of fugitives--so many that the cases have begun to run together in the agents' minds. A few, however, stick out.

There was the time last month that agent Frank Vanecek leapt from his car to chase a man fitting the description of a halfway-house escapee. As Vanecek was in hot pursuit, the man threw down a 9mm Glock handgun, which was loaded with armor-piercing "cop killer" bullets. It turned out that the suspect, Clarence Hatchett, wasn't an escapee. But he was on probation and in possession of a weapon, which earned him a trip back to jail.

Another case last month involved halfway-house escapee Derrick O. Winston, who has a history of armed robbery and assaults. Winston gave the task force some anxious moments when he swore that he wouldn't be taken alive. The squad called in the Aurora police SWAT team, which surrounded the East Sixth Avenue motel where Winston was staying. Winston didn't make good on his threats and surrendered peaceably.

Then there was the time agent Howard "Jake" Jaquay went to a house looking for fugitive Peter Castro. Just as Castro's mother was denying any knowledge of her son's whereabouts--"I haven't seen him in three months," she said--Castro's leg popped through a ceiling tile. The agent politely aided Castro from the crawl space and hustled him off to what Jaquay calls "the gray bar hotel."

When the CBI task force was established, Jaquay was loaned to the agency by the state parole department, where he went to work after serving as Wheat Ridge chief of police for six years. He's still considered a parole officer, though he says he'd like to stay in his present job--if and when the legislature funds the squad permanently.

The task force places absconders into three categories, with the highest level of attention given to violent offenders, followed by "career criminals" and perpetrators of property crimes. The agents run computer checks on driver's licenses and car registrations. Unlike glamorous TV-style investigators, the job consists of long hours waiting on stakeouts or nailed before a computer screen. It can be a boring job, albeit one that is punctuated by adrenaline-pumping moments.

The best time to capture a fugitive, squad members agree, is at dawn. "If they're in the house, Jaquay says, "they're probably going to be there in the early morning, after a night of partying." Squad members say they've managed to handcuff some fugitives before the suspects were even awake.

A typical day, however, consists of waiting, watching, and making a slew of phone calls and computer checks. One recent Tuesday Jacquay staked out various addresses, hoping to catch a glimpse of a fugitive or spot a car belonging to a known associate.

The first stop on Jaquay's itinerary is a home in West Denver. The fugitive, says the investigator, who keeps up a running commentary that occasionally slips into street slang, "has a mama who lives down here." The man fled a Denver halfway house two months ago and has made himself scarce since then. This day will prove no different. Jaquay checks the license plate of a Chevy parked out front, but it belongs to an elderly woman from northern Colorado, not one of the fugitive's friends. Jaquay could knock on the door and inquire about the man's whereabouts. But that would run the risk of "burning the address," he says--tipping off the fugitive that somebody's on his trail.

Jaquay's second stop is the suspected hangout of a man who escaped from a halfway house more than two years ago. Standing at the door of the house is a sharp-faced woman, the fugitive's girlfriend. Jaquay drives on by. "She knows me," he says, "and I think she saw me. I went to her old apartment once looking for him." The fugitive wasn't there, but Jaquay was so disgusted with the state of the apartment--"her four children were living in shit"--that he called Denver Social Services and asked them to check out the situation. The apartment manager evicted the woman, which did little to endear her to Jaquay.

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.

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.

Ackerman says the coalition would like to see the CBI's fugitive task force made permanent and its duties expanded even further. Even now, the CBI has a budget request working its way through the governor's administrative review process. If things go smoothly, the request, which asks for salaries for five agents and a secretary, will be part of the appropriations bill presented to the legislature next year.

For now, however, the task force has more than enough cases to worry about. Its members are hopeful that the legislature will recognize the work they've done. But the legislature must also address a critical question: whether it makes sense to give money to the CBI without also toughening halfway-house admission standards and the penalties for escape.

Part of the problem, says Jaquay, is that community corrections boardmembers want desperately to believe that if they accept an inmate into a halfway-house program, the offender will go on to live a productive life.

"Reformation is a religion," Jaquay says. "Like salvation. [The boards] see the inmates sitting across the table, and they have their scrubbed, polite face on. They don't have to catch them face to face in a basement with a gun.

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