If matters go according to Governor Roy Romer's plan, the state Senate this week will confirm the appointments of four new representatives to Colorado's State Board of Parole. But if two local prisoners'-advocacy groups have their way, the reshuffling of the board will be neither quick nor quiet.
Concerned by what they deem to be an overabundance of clout by law enforcement officials in the parole process, members of the Human Rights Coalition of Colorado and Colorado CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants) intend to make certain their opinions are heard before the Senate rubber-stamps the governor's appointments.
"I think what's going to happen--and what's already happening," says coalition director Sandi Izor, "is that we have seen an influence by parole-board members who are from law enforcement or retired judiciary people who have greatly affected the numbers of people being released. Or maybe I should say the lack of people being released.
"I do not see a balance represented. I think that's where the problem lies, and I think the governor is responsible for that. And I think the [appointment] power should be taken away from him by the General Assembly."
The law governing the creation of the parole board requires that the seven-member panel consist of two representatives from law enforcement, one former parole officer or probation officer and four "citizen" representatives. By statute, the appointees must have knowledge of parole, rehabilitation, correctional administration, the criminal-justice process and victims' issues.
As of late last year, the board's membership included the former chief of probation services for the state, the former director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, a former district attorney's investigator, a former state senator, a former cop/parole officer, a former probation supervisor and an attorney.
But though those former careers may have made that parole board better educated about the tough questions facing it, CURE chair Dianne Tramutola-Lawson says the board had a mindset of "one criminal is just as bad as the next."
"There are 4,000 people in the Department of Corrections who have passed their parole eligibility dates and are still in prison," says Tramutola-Lawson, whose husband is serving time for murder. "I don't mean to say that all of them should be paroled, but you can't tell me that a good number of those can't be released into a community setting. This glut is ridiculous. They have a terror of any prisoner being released."
Adds Izor, whose husband is also a convicted murderer and is still behind bars, "One of the things I've learned in the last few months in talking to anyone on the board, particularly [parole board chairman] Larry Trujillo, is that they believe that most people do not deserve to get out. They always cite the worst-case scenarios." Although most inmates, if turned down for parole, are told to try again in six months to a year, Izor notes that the past board has "done things like set back people's parole hearings for two or three years. This has been happening more and more."
Because boardmembers serve staggered terms, openings occur infrequently. Seldom can a governor make wholesale changes to the board by staging a slew of new appointments.
But no one really expected the shakeups that occurred on the board in early 1997: Chairman Trujillo was tapped to become deputy chief of the state prison system, Vice Chairman Ray Enright retired, Yvonne Scott decided to step down as a boardmember and serve instead as an administrative hearing officer for the board, and Robert Pastore won election to a district attorney's post. (In addition, boardmember Rod Cozzetto's term expires in July.)
Virtually overnight, Governor Romer had to replace more than half the board. As of late last week, he had appointed three people--former Denver police division chief Tom Haney, prison case manager Curtis Devin and attorney/parole hearing officer Patricia Kroll--to serve as interim boardmembers pending confirmation hearings on April 2. All three are already at work. The governor must still appoint someone to replace Larry Trujillo.
Karen Rokala, who serves on the governor's Office of Boards and Commissions, defends the selections, saying the current makeup of the board is "very good. I think they're very cognizant of the safety of the community, and when paroling people, they're making sure they have a plan and can go out into the community."
But to Izor and Tramutola-Lawson, the new appointments are unacceptable because they load down the board with former cops and what they loosely define as "law enforcement types."
"I don't see where there's any balance, because what they're looking at as criteria [for release] is clearly influenced by their law enforcement backgrounds or probation or case management," Izor says. "The legislature clearly has not made a provision for the interpretation of the statute that says citizens must be appointed to the parole board.
"Someone, perhaps a teacher or psychologist or even a lawyer who has more of a psychological bent regarding rehabilitating these people, would be more appropriate. There are a lot of criminal defense attorneys who would be just as qualified [as Romer's new appointees]. Why aren't they being appointed? Why aren't they just as qualified?
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"A lot of people are qualified to sit on a jury and hold someone's life in their hands. Then why aren't they qualified to sit on a parole board?"
One of the new appointees begs to differ. Haney, the former Denver cop, says having a background in corrections, law enforcement or the courts doesn't mean that a boardmember cannot be fair. "I think their concerns are unfounded," he says of Izor and Tramutola-Lawson. "Our overriding concern is the public welfare and the risk the person potentially poses to the community. We have to balance the rights of the general populace against the rights of an inmate for the privilege of being allowed on parole." And, he stresses, parole is a privilege, not a right.
If Tramutola-Lawson and Izor prove unable to sway this week's slate, they might have another chance--the Senate Appropriations Committee is reviewing a bill that would add four new part-time spots to the parole board.
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