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.

"I've brought all my trouble on myself," Johnson says. "I don't deny that. But I can't get into that shelter environment and be expected to succeed. It seems like there's no place for a homeless parolee to go but downtown. And when a guy gets downtown, he's just lost."

The Colorado Board of Parole holds more than 16,000 hearings a year to consider applications for parole. Last year it also held more than 9,000 hearings to consider revoking inmates' parole. That works out to more than seventy hearings a day, but only parole hearings involving violent offenders require a review by the full seven-member board. Most hearings are conducted by a single boardmember or an attorney serving as a hearing officer, and they last just a few minutes.

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.

A frequent stop for the ever-roaming board members is the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, which houses inmates just coming into the prison system on a new sentence -- or returning from somewhere else. On this particular morning, board chairman Allan Stanley starts reviewing parole applications at a table on one side of the visiting room, while his colleague Verne Saint Vincent, a former Aurora police chief, conducts revocation hearings on the other side. Inmates are escorted to the room one at a time. Between them, Stanley and Saint Vincent make it through close to twenty cases in under two hours.

Stanley, a former Englewood police officer and ex-deputy director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, interviews the applicants with brisk efficiency. The inmates offer the usual explanations for their crimes ("I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time; the guy who forged that check got it from the lady I was seeing at the time") and the usual responses to the question of why they should be paroled ("I just want to get out and rehabilitate myself as soon as possible"). Stanley has heard it all before.

More than half of the state's prisoners are past their parole-eligibility date, the day on which they can first appear before the parole board. To Stanley, it's a meaningless statistic; the board isn't obliged to release someone just because he's eligible. Of greater concern to the chairman is the number of short-term prisoners he sees at Denver Reception who've spent months in county jails awaiting trial, just arrived in the DOC, and are already approaching their mandatory release date. In those cases, the board is simply rubber-stamping a release for someone who's had no chance to enroll in drug treatment or other prison programs that are supposed to help alter criminal behavior.

"You just got here, and it looks like you're going out on the 28th of this month," Stanley says, thumbing through one inmate's paperwork. "What do you want to say to me?"

Stephen O'Hara, a 21-year-old doing time for possession of marijuana, shrugs and smiles faintly. "I don't think there's anything I can say to you that you don't already know," he replies.

"Good luck to you," Stanley says.

Prior to 1993, parole in Colorado was essentially a form of early release: Prisoners who exhibited good behavior and completed programs were rewarded with parole. But since the advent of mandatory parole, the number of prisoners granted "discretionary parole" has declined drastically. Last year, less than 10 percent of parole hearings resulted in an early release; in most cases, the board either denied the application or ordered parole at the time of mandatory release -- which allows those inmates to be counted as "paroled" when, in fact, they're doing the maximum amount of time in prison that the law allows, less the "good time" computations the DOC routinely shaves off their sentences.

Knowing they're not likely to get an early release reduces prisoners' incentive to take the programs that are supposed to equip them for life on the streets; consequently, the recidivism rate for mandatory parole is significantly higher than that of discretionary parole. Of the inmates released on mandatory parole in 2001, roughly two out of three were back in prison for a new crime or a parole violation within three years, compared to 52 percent of those granted early release. Still, Stanley is a strong advocate of mandatory parole. Prior to 1993, he points out, dangerous offenders such as rapist Brent Brents could kill their number in prison and emerge with no supervision at all.

"Repeat offenders don't want to come out under supervision," he says. "They'd rather do their time. The mandatory parole is an important transition."

Early release can have its disappointments, too. One of the applicants Stanley sees today is Joseph Deaguero, 41, a heavily tattooed convict with a history of escapes, thefts and substance abuse. Stanley recommended his early release two years ago and took his case to the full board, only to see him fail on parole.

"I'm really disappointed in you," Stanley says, eyeing Deaguero's file.

"I'm disappointed in myself," says Deaguero. Behind him sits his wife of seven months and his stepdaughter, who have come to support his latest parole bid.

Stanley asks him what happened. Foot-dancing nervously under his chair, Deaguero launches into an explanation about violating parole conditions in order to "bond" with his mother, who was moving out of state; the account shows he's picked up some of the self-help jargon tossed around DOC classes. "I just used some poor decision-making," he says. "I did some negative thinking. I accept responsibility for my mistake.... I just ask the parole board to give me another chance to be a productive member of society. I have a family now. I got strong support, a good job. I know I can make it."

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