The Long Road Home

Why so many parolees go back to prison, and how a new approach could help turn them around.

"Resources for people leaving prison have always been minimal," says Salinas, a veteran criminal-justice activist who became the center's first full-time director two years ago. "A pair of shoes, a cheap suit, a bus ticket -- that was all the system ever did. Even now, very few centers like this exist anywhere in the country."

As the orientation session winds down, Salinas tells the new arrivals about the center's database of job leads and its resource room, where clients can craft their resumés and work the phones. He stresses the importance of signing in every visit ("Parole officers do call and check to see if you've been here") and keeping the place tidy.

"We can't do it all for you," he says. "But we have a lot of resources in the community. Our goal is for you to stay in the community. Your goal is to take care of your obligations and make it to the next step, do the right things for those you love."

Getting a job is job one: Director Mario Salinas  
prepares clients for a bumpy re-entry.
John Johnston
Getting a job is job one: Director Mario Salinas prepares clients for a bumpy re-entry.
Just the facts: Alison Schwedner urges workshop 
attendees to give "the time and the crime" when job 
interview questions get tough.
John Johnston
Just the facts: Alison Schwedner urges workshop attendees to give "the time and the crime" when job interview questions get tough.

The new arrivals have questions. A young man with a goatee and a ponytail goes first.

"Who is John Inmann?" he asks.

Salinas smiles. "That's an interesting story," he says.


Hardly a week goes by that Lance Clem doesn't think about John Inmann. A former aide to Governor Roy Romer, Clem now has Inmann's old job and cumbersome title -- director of the Office of Drug Control and System Improvement in the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice -- and reminders of Inmann's work are all around him.

Many people in the DCJ have fond memories of Inmann, a dedicated employee with a distinctive handlebar mustache and a deadpan wit -- but none more so, it seems, than Clem. "John had a great sense of humor and was very knowledgeable," he says. "We didn't always agree, but I realized after a while that he never did anything without a good reason."

Years ago, Inmann worked on developing drug- and alcohol-treatment programs for prisoners in Cañon City, leading to a lifelong interest in the problem of recidivism. At DCJ, he was in an ideal position to track the effects of Colorado's prison-building boom during the 1980s and 1990s, and he didn't like what he was seeing.

The statistics were dismal. Over the course of fifteen years, the state's prison population doubled, then doubled again, outpacing the rate of growth of the state as a whole. The percentage of inmates serving time for nonviolent drug offenses also quadrupled. Equally alarming, the one-year recidivism rate was rising sharply, from 27 percent in 1992 to 40 percent in 1999. By the late 1990s, more than half of all Colorado felons could be counted on to return to prison within three years of their release.

Part of the problem, Inmann realized, had to do with a series of shortsighted but politically popular legislative decisions. Tougher sentencing laws for low-level drug offenders. Inadequately funded treatment programs. And, perhaps most damaging of all, a parole system that was becoming overburdened and unworkable.

Colorado's system of discretionary parole, under which an inmate can earn early release through good behavior, dates back to 1899. But in 1993, the legislature decided to add a period of up to five years of mandatory parole that prisoners must complete, whether they serve their full prison sentence or not. The law was supposed to stop a prisoner from "killing his number" behind bars so that he could emerge without any supervision; instead, it may have seriously aggravated the re-entry problem it was seeking to address.

One consequence of mandatory parole is that the parole board is granting fewer and fewer early releases. Five years ago, almost 30 percent of prisoners seeing the board were granted parole; now it's down to 20 percent. The board claims to have granted parole to nearly 5,000 people last year, out of more than 16,000 applications, but that number is misleading: Of the 4,784 "successful" applicants, all but 2,000 of them were "released on MRD" -- in other words, their parole doesn't become effective until their mandatory release date from prison. Fifty-two percent of the DOC's inmates are past their parole eligibility date, but fewer than 1 percent of those who see the board receive parole the first time around; the rest must return year after year, only to face a high probability that they won't get out until the day the system is forced to release them.

Cutting down on the number of discretionary paroles increases the size and cost of the prison population, of course, and mandatory parole has only compounded the problem. As the parole period increases, so does the opportunity for technical violations. Resentful of the additional time tacked onto the end of their sentences or incapable of meeting the conditions of parole, growing numbers of offenders are being revoked and sometimes spending the rest of their mandatory parole time in prison. On average, a revoked parolee spends an additional twelve months in prison, at a cost of around $27,000; the technical violations alone now cost the state an estimated $63 million a year. Significantly, the number of parole violators who are self-revoking (waiving their right to a revocation hearing and requesting that they be sent back to prison) has skyrocketed since the mandatory-parole provisions kicked in, from 186 in 1998 to 1,248 last year.

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