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Over and Over Again

Spending half a billion dollars on new prisons won't solve the state's biggest crime problem: the staggering failure rate of parole.

Having been deep in it most of his life, John "Jake" Johnson can smell trouble coming. So last year, when the fifty-year-old inmate found out he would be paroling from a private prison in Trinidad to a homeless shelter in downtown Denver, the news smelled very bad indeed.

"I told my case manager,'I can't go back to a shelter,'" he recalls. "You put me in that atmosphere, people drinking and shooting dope and smoking crack, and man! I can't help what I am."

What Johnson is, among other things, is an alcoholic and a thief. He started drinking heavily in his teens, around the time his father died and his large family had to move from an upper-middle-class neighborhood in east Denver to a housing project on the west side. "That changed my life right there," he says. "I'm not using it as an excuse, but it might have been a defining moment. My dad died, we went to the projects, and that was it." He dropped out of high school, picked up a juvenile record, then an extensive adult rap sheet -- burglary, robbery, auto theft -- that has kept him weaving in and out of the prison system for most of the past three decades.

 
Devon Bowman
 
Christie Donner wants to fix the parole system so ex-
cons have a fighting chance at staying free.
Anthony Camera
Christie Donner wants to fix the parole system so ex- cons have a fighting chance at staying free.

Throughout his erratic criminal career, Johnson has been consistent in one area: He's been a thoroughly unsuccessful parolee. Each time he received parole, he'd get a job, start drinking -- and end up going back to prison on a parole violation. The first few times that happened, he'd complete his sentence behind bars ("kill his number," in convict lingo), then return to the streets.

But in 1993, Colorado lawmakers decided to add up to five years of mandatory parole that prisoners must complete, whether they serve their full sentence or not. For thousands of cons like Johnson, battling drug and alcohol problems and with few outside resources to help them make it back on the streets, the practical effect of mandatory parole was to tack years of additional incarceration onto their sentences, even if their crime was relatively minor.

Johnson's current sentence dates back to 1999, when he helped himself to $1,500 that belonged to his employer, a bail bondsman. He was originally sentenced to four years of probation. He completed seven months in a halfway house, then was supposed to move into his own place -- but he took off for Utah instead. After that, he was sent to prison for six months, served four months on parole, then absconded again. This time he got another six months in prison, followed by six months of intensive supervision parole (ISP), during which he wore an electronic ankle bracelet and his urine was regularly tested for alcohol. The ISP program "worked like a charm," Johnson says, but after it ended, he was off on another drinking binge -- and on his way back to prison for another six months.

Last June, almost six years after his four-year sentence began, Johnson learned that the Colorado Department of Corrections was preparing to put him on the streets yet again. This time he was told to report to New Genesis, a Denver homeless shelter. "I wanted to go to the Salvation Army drug-and-alcohol program," he says. "It's away from all that. But they said I had to go to New Genesis. That's where they had room for me."

Johnson arrived in Denver with eleven dollars to his name. He was issued a pager at a parole office and told to call in every time it beeped. He signed up for food stamps. The state paid his first two weeks' rent at New Genesis, but after that, he was on his own.

"The first thing you got to do is get working, no matter where," Johnson says. "Got to get the drug-and-alcohol classes, too. That's 25 bucks a week. And the UAs [urinalysis]. They want your restitution paid, too. You got all these bills mounting up the minute you hit the street."

New Genesis wasn't as bad as Johnson feared. "It was just a nasty place," he says. "You got people going in and out drunk and shit like that. The regular crowd is pretty much all DOC, and they're drinking, too. There was a heroin overdose in the shower the week I got there. But a guy could probably make it down there if he really puts his mind to it."

Johnson tried to do just that. He found day-labor and temp jobs right away. His pager went off three or four times a day, and each time he dropped whatever he was doing and headed for a phone. But his job-hunting range was restricted by his lack of a car or a bus pass, and he was reluctant to leave the shelter phone number as a contact for potential employers. After three weeks, the dead-end grimness of it all put his mind to having a drink. He left the shelter and didn't look back.

For a few days he continued to answer his pager -- until he lost it. Drinking every day and living on the streets began to catch up with him. He knew that sooner or later the DOC would catch up with him, too. He was arrested last September and, just as he expected, the hearing officer revoked his parole and handed him another 180-day "turnaround" behind bars.

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