John Johnson, still lost in the system: Counting the years of his never-ending parole

Four years ago, in a feature called "Over and Over Again," I reported on the staggering number of nonviolent offenders stuck in Colorado's revolving-door version of parole -- and costing the state millions of dollars. Exhibit A was an alcoholic parolee named John "Jake" Johnson, who'd been arrested in 1999 for stealing $1,500 from his employer.

Johnson was originally sentenced to four years of probation. But he had trouble staying clear of booze and reporting on time. He ended up in a seemingly endless loop of going to prison, being paroled homeless, then picking up technical violations and new charges ("escape," for leaving a homeless shelter without permission) and more prison time. At the time I interviewed him, he'd already cost taxpayers roughly a quarter million dollars in incarceration costs, court appearances and other expenses.

Four years later, not much has changed.

Johnson recently wrote to Westword from his cell at the prison in Buena Vista. Here's some of what he had to say:

"I am writing to let you know I am still doing a four-year sentence dating back to 2001. I got drunk on my ankle bracelet, and after a week-long binge, I was arrested and charged with escape. I pled guilty and received a two-year sentence with two more years of parole.

I have been doing this sentence now for going on 12 years. I thought for sure I would be released early with Governor Ritter's early release program. I haven't seen one person be released early in this facility. People do not know just how powerful the Parole Board members are. When Governor Ritter announced his plan for an early release, the Parole Board purposely handpicked ten of the most dangerous criminals and cut them loose, and then publicized it on the front page of the Denver Post.

You know, I'm not the only one doing time like this, I've talked to a lot of inmates who are in the same boat. I didn't go out and commit new crimes, I went out and drank.

We really need to look into mandatory parole and ISP parole. If they keep filing escape charges for absconders like myself, they will keep filling beds and asking the legislature for more money to build more prisons."

For the record, Johnson has done well for months at a time when he's been employed, had access to alcohol treatment programs and been properly supervised. But paroling him to shelters filled with drunks hasn't worked. How much longer he--and we--will be paying for his inability to complete parole is anybody's guess.

For more on last fall's uproar over Ritter's less-than-advertised early release program, go here.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast