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 there's no early release for Deaguero this time. His case is deferred until next year, when his mandatory release date (MRD) comes up. Of all the inmates Stanley sees this morning, every one will be released effective on his mandatory release date or deferred, most likely until an approaching MRD makes parole inevitable. Given the board's view that almost every inmate can "benefit" from more time inside, and the fact that the inmates all have to do mandatory parole anyway, early release just isn't an option for most prisoners any more -- which raises the question of why Colorado still has a parole board at all.

The knock on the current boardmembers, all appointed by Governor Bill Owens, is that they have a lock-'em-up mentality and seldom parole anyone they don't have to. Under state law, the board is supposed to be composed of two representatives with a law enforcement background, one former parole or probation officer, and four citizens. Stanley's board has two citizens, an ex-parole officer, an ex-police chief, an ex-state trooper, a former corrections officer and Stanley himself, who has thirty years in law enforcement. That's a lot of cops, but Stanley says they happen to be "citizens," too.

"We were going through a number of citizens who would only stay on the board a matter of weeks," he explains. "And they're all supposed to have a working knowledge of the criminal justice system. That's very hard to find. Verne Saint Vincent had been retired three years. He argued successfully with the governor that he didn't give up his citizenship when he retired."

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.

And while changing the makeup of the board might have a modest impact on the early release numbers, it's unlikely to have much effect on the miserable failure rate of parole overall. "There are two things I have noticed that impact recidivism," Stanley says. "One of them is simply age. They get too old to commit a crime or mature out of it. The second thing is the ability to make a living -- and meaningful programs that help them with their addiction problems. They need more programming, but a lot of them can't make enough money to pay for all the programs they're supposed to take. So they're really not getting what they need."

Stanley says the most encouraging development he's seen in years is the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center, a privately operated, medium-security prison in Colorado Springs that opened last summer and focuses on educational, vocational and treatment programs for inmates who are headed for parole. The operation is far more intensive than the DOC's previous pre-release facility in Cañon City, which couldn't handle the growing crunch of parole-eligible inmates. The department had been seeking a private contractor for years and settled on Community Education Centers of New Jersey, which boasts studies that show a drop in recidivism attributed to similar efforts in other states.

"That's just exactly what they need," says Stanley. "It's a wonderful transition out for people who have been in DOC for a long time."

Three years ago, the state legislature decided to create more options for dealing with parole violators. Senate Bill 252, which Christie Donner's reform group helped to write, limits the amount of time low-level offenders must serve on a technical violation to 180 days. Instead of simply shipping nonviolent parolees back to prison for a year or more because they did something stupid, the parole board is now required to send them to one of five "return-to-custody facilities" in the community -- a kind of halfway house where parolees can focus on programs stressing "relapse prevention" and prepare to finish their parole successfully.

"The intention was to do a better job of working with people in the community," explains Donner. "People were going back to prison for things that were not inherently criminal in nature -- not having a job, not having a place to live. When two-thirds of the people on mandatory parole are being revoked -- and at the time we wrote 252, the vast majority were on a technical violation -- that should send up red flags. We can't simply throw people back into prison and have them come out in the same boat they were in before. It's a ridiculous waste of money."

The new law was expected to save the state millions of dollars over the next few years by freeing up prison space. However, DOC officials claim that any savings from S.B. 252 have been greatly reduced by a 33 percent increase in revocation hearings; apparently, more parolees are failing now that the penalties for failure seem less severe. At the same time, more parole violators are facing charges for new crimes than ever before, further complicating the revocation process and possibly adding more prison time than they would have had under the old system.

"Some of these guys are on their third or fourth revocation now," says Stanley, who agrees with certain features of S.B. 252 but laments that it's taken some discretion away from the board. "They go in for six months and come right back out."

Jeaneene Miller, director of the DOC's division of adult parole, says S.B. 252 has allowed more flexibility in dealing with minor parole violators. There are now 212 offenders in the return-to-custody beds, and she expects that number to reach 300 by the end of the year. But she, too, says that 180 days isn't enough time for some of them.

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