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.

But that wasn't all. A few days later, Johnson was brought into a Denver courtroom and informed that he was being charged not only with a parole violation, but with a new crime: escape. Until that moment, he insists, nobody told him that the pager meant he was again on intensive supervision parole. Walking away from ISP carries an automatic felony escape charge. Although calling his supervision "intensive" might be a stretch -- Johnson says he had only one brief meeting with his parole officer during his three weeks at the shelter -- he was now facing four to twelve years in prison for failing to follow the rules.

"I was shocked," he says. "There were all these guys in county [jail] with me who were charged with escape, too, guys who'd been living in shelters or at home with pagers. I couldn't believe it. When the judge told me I was looking at another twelve years, I couldn't even speak. I just about shit my pants."

His back against the wall, Johnson readily accepted a plea deal that added one year to his sentence for the escape. He's now in the Sterling Correctional Facility, serving the rest of his drawn-out time. With good behavior, he should be back on the streets by this time next year, with another two years of parole to do. Assuming he actually finishes his parole this time, his theft of $1,500 will have cost him nearly a decade of his life -- and cost Colorado taxpayers roughly a quarter million dollars in incarceration costs, court appearances and other expenses related to his incessant parole failures.

Ex-con John Johnson
Ex-con John Johnson
State representative Bernie Buescher would rather 
improve the parole system than pay for more prisons.
State representative Bernie Buescher would rather improve the parole system than pay for more prisons.

Multiply Johnson's situation by several thousand similarly situated inmates, and you can see how Colorado's troubled parole system is punishing everyone in the state. The population of parolees is skyrocketing in Colorado; so is the failure rate. And most of the failures are chronic, low-level offenders like Johnson -- many of them homeless, all of them caught in a complex and exceedingly expensive revolving door.

In January, DOC officials stunned state legislators with a request for more than half a billion dollars in additional funding to keep up with the projected growth rate of the prison population. The number of Colorado inmates has grown at more than twice the national average over the past decade and now stands at more than 21,000; it's expected to increase to 29,000 by 2011. Just providing beds for that influx will require $386 million to build new prisons and an additional $168 million in operating costs for those prisons over the next five years, DOC officials say. This, of course, is on top of the department's $600 million annual budget.

Lawmakers were appalled by the DOC's pronouncement and scrambled to come up with alternatives. But department spokesmen defended their hefty request, arguing that it was a logical outcome of anticipated population growth and neglect of prison-expansion needs during the recent years of budget cuts. Missing from the discussion, though, was any acknowledgement that the bed shortage is a direct result of the parole logjam.

No one talked about the inmates who have technically been "paroled" but will remain in prison until their mandatory release date; the inmates whose paroles have been postponed or denied because there's no place to put them once they're released; and, most costly of all, the hordes of parolees who are winding up right back in the system again, heaped with parole violations or serving time for "new crimes" that, in many cases, are directly related to the conditions of their parole.

More than half of all parolees fail to complete parole the first time around, and the numbers are getting worse. In the last fiscal year, 6,443 Colorado prisoners were released on parole. During the same twelve-month period, 3,473 parolees returned to prison, after an average stay on the streets of ten months. Of the 9,415 "new" inmates entering the state's prisons last year, one in three was a parole violator going back to serve more time on an old sentence. If current trends continue, within a few years the figure will be one in two.

Defenders of the current system say parole isn't supposed to be easy and that there will always be failures. But reformers contend that parole in Colorado has become unduly complicated, onerous and unworkable; they'd like to see the system scrapped or substantially overhauled. By investing even modest sums in additional resources for parolees -- including crucial but politically unpopular programs that provide transitional housing, job training and substance-abuse treatment -- the success rate could change dramatically, they suggest, freeing up prison beds for more serious criminals and saving tens of millions of dollars now sought for more prisons.

"There are a lot of people going back to prison intentionally because they can't make it out here," says Christie Donner, co-director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "We just haven't built a very good re-entry system in Colorado. Paroling homeless is not a parole plan."

But fixing parole won't be easy, either. Three years ago Donner's group helped pass legislation designed to ease the parole backlog. But the new law seems to have had some unintended consequences, including more revocations and a sizable leap in the number of new felony charges filed against parole violators. And no one has come up with a simple answer for the growing ranks of homeless parolees such as Jake Johnson.

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