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.

"For certain populations, it should be a longer return to DOC," she says. "Their background warrants that level of intervention. You might have someone whose current conviction is a class 5 or 6 [felony], but he has a history of aggravated robbery and a severe drug dependency and needs to go back for a longer period of time."

The idea that parole violators "deserve" more time than S.B. 252 allows might help explain why the number of parolees going back to prison on new felony convictions has jumped a whopping 83 percent in the past year, from 450 to 824. Before S.B. 252 came along, Stanley says, many violators would self-revoke -- they'd simply admit to a parole violation and ask to be returned to prison. New charges pending for, say, doing drugs or walking away from a shelter would be routinely dismissed because they were going back to prison anyway. But now the board rarely allows self-revocation, and prosecutors, at the urging of parole officers, are filing more felony charges on top of the parole violations.

"When they self-revoked, it would show up statistically as a technical parole violation rather than a new crime," Stanley says. "Now you're seeing the truth."

 
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.

Donner views the hike in new felonies as a DOC tactic to do an end-run around the intent of the law. "New crimes aren't always what they seem," she says. "You can be late coming back to a halfway house, and that can be considered an escape. I know of a woman who was sent back last week for having a cell phone -- that's contraband. If [the DOC is] satisfied with how much time they're getting for technical violations, then they don't file for new crimes."

But heaping more charges on offenders for what are essentially parole violations is wrongheaded, Donner insists: "Let's recognize that re-entry is extremely, extremely difficult. We need to provide greater support for the people coming out. When you revoke someone for a minor violation, all you've done is obliterate what they've been able to put together in their life. The more appropriate response for someone who's on the edge -- maybe they're starting to use drugs, maybe they're hanging out with people they shouldn't be around -- is to use intermediate sanctions in the community."

When the DOC presented its king-sized budget request to the legislature three months ago, Representative Bernie Buescher, a Democrat who once ran for lieutenant governor, demanded to know what the agency was doing to reduce recidivism. DOC director Joe Ortiz replied that he had no control over how many prisoners the courts send him or how long they're expected to stay.

The answer failed to impress Buescher. He intimated that the agency should stop automatically expanding to accommodate its caseload and start looking at its performance. He wanted the DOC to come up with a plan to improve the success rate of its clientele, rather than simply feed on its failures.

He's still waiting for that plan. "The silence has been deafening," Buescher says. "Some of the departments don't believe they can actually control their budgets. This is a classic example."

Buescher's no expert on prisons, he adds, but he believes that the DOC needs to set goals for reducing recidivism and then make management changes to achieve them. "They have a recidivism rate that's dropped slightly over the last four years, from 52 to 49 percent," he notes. "But how does that compare with other states? We need to look at that, yet they're complaining about their caseload. If it wasn't so sad, it would be comic."


When prisoners do get paroled from the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, the chances are pretty good that, a few weeks or months later, they'll wind up 200 yards down Smith Road from where they started -- at the Denver County Jail, awaiting a parole revocation hearing and the trip back to the DRDC.

Administrative hearing officer Tom Waters conducts revocations at the jail with a kind of tightly controlled urgency that makes parole hearings seem almost leisurely by comparison. There are plenty of obligatory advisements and procedural niceties to follow, and an ever-shifting cast of inmates, parole officers and manila files, but Waters, an attorney who's been doing revocations for the parole board for three years, manages to keep it all moving along. He averages 180 hearings a month.

The accused parole violators are men and women, black, white and brown. Mostly, they are resigned, their voices faint in the cavernous visiting room.

"I understand why I should be violated -- revoked," says one woman, who's been charged with failing to report to her parole officer and has a new conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia. "I'm just ready to get back on the right track."

"I been doing good," says another, arrested on a charge of solicitation. "I just went on Colfax, and I shouldn't have. I ended up following my mind and not doing the right thing."

"I ate a burger, and I got really sick," says a ponytailed male who's picked up municipal court convictions for disturbing the peace, trespassing and unlawful public indecency, all over one bad night on downtown's mean streets. "I was crapping, was what I was doing. I was in the bathroom of a hotel for three hours. They kicked me out of there, so I had to go somewhere else.... Since I got off ISP, it's been a nightmare. I got kicked out of New Genesis for someone else's stupidity."

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