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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.

If the parolee has already been found guilty of a new crime, that simplifies Waters's job. A new crime is a self-evident parole violation that almost always warrants revocation. In other instances, new charges are still pending; Waters postpones action on those cases until later, lining up three inmates at a time to grant continuances. Over the course of a morning, he continues eight cases, sends two inmates back to prison (including Mr. Bad Burger) and allows another to proceed on parole.

"It's never a great joy to revoke someone's parole," Waters says later, when he has a few moments to reflect on his work. "It's a tough business. These are individuals who we're trying to get back into the world. But it's not just a litany of failure that is being brought before me. You'd be surprised at the number of times the parole officer says good things about how hard this individual has been trying. Sometimes the individual is going to be continued on parole, with new conditions."

Parole chief Miller says that despite caseloads well in excess of recommended levels, her officers work hard to keep nonviolent parolees from going back to prison. "I don't think people realize how many things we do to work with a client before sending them back," she says. "Typically, we have multiple parole violations before they go before the board. We go through positive drug test after drug test, we increase treatment and supervision. We go in and ask for modifications to the parole agreement. There are so many intermediate steps you can take -- unless you have a new crime, a weapon, or someone who is truly a public-safety risk."

 
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.

But how many of the new crimes actually consist of a drug relapse, walking away from a shelter or some other offense that would hardly merit prison time for someone who wasn't on parole? The DOC doesn't keep statistics on such matters, but Waters acknowledges that a "significant" number of the new crimes that pop up in revocation hearings are simply escape charges. Failing to report to a parole officer, to maintain a stable residence or to refrain from alcohol or drugs are the most common technical violations he sees, but if the same incident has resulted in criminal charges, it becomes a quick trip back to the slammer.

"The commission of a crime while on parole is a serious matter," he says. "If it's a felony, there's virtually no chance the individual is going to continue on parole."

Sara Steen, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has been following revocation hearings for months as part of a long-term study of state parole policy. Although her data is still being collected, Steen has formed preliminary impressions of why some parolees seem to succeed while others fail. Some of it depends on the type of offender or even the type of parole officer assigned to the case, she suggests; less experienced officers push harder to revoke on more minor violations. But a key indicator is homelessness.

"The major obstacle for most of these people is housing," Steen says. "It's virtually impossible to succeed if you don't have a place to stay."

Some parolees arrive on Smith Road without even a shelter placement. All they have when they alight from the prison bus that drops them there is a state check for a hundred bucks (cashable at a nearby liquor store, which charges a 10 percent fee), a box containing whatever worldly goods they've managed to hang on to in prison, and some vague directions to a cut-rate motel that will devour the balance of their funds in two or three days. If they're lucky, they might also have a phone number for someone like Rose Herrera, who's worked with homeless parolees for nine years through an outreach program at the Denver Inner City Parish.

Herrera is now the parish office manager, but parolees still seek her out, hoping she can help them negotiate the bewildering world of the streets. She tries to find a place for them to stay, knowing the first few weeks on parole are critical.

"The majority of them get revoked," she says. "A lot of them commit a crime so they can self-revoke and go back to prison. They know they can't make it out here."

According to Herrera, it's not uncommon for parolees to go back to prison on technical violations alone, including the common offense of "association" -- hanging out with other ex-cons. "I had one guy go back because the parole office found out his dad was in prison twelve years ago," she says. "They didn't find out about it until he'd been living with his dad for two months. He's back in county right now. Another went back because at his job he worked with two other guys who were on parole."

There are more resources for parolees now than there were a decade ago, Herrera says, including programs developed by faith-based groups such as her parish. But state-funded parole services -- such as the John Inmann Work and Family Center, a key resource for job-hunting and treatment programs -- were hit hard by the budget cuts of the past few years. And Herrera doesn't think re-entry programs are as keen a priority for the corrections bureaucracy as, say, building a second supermax prison.

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