Governor Bill Ritter's modest proposal to parole hundreds of inmates a few weeks or months before their mandatory release date, thereby cutting millions from the state budget, has become the political whipping boy for his most opportunistic critics, from GOP legislators to Weld County District Attorney (and Senate candidate) Ken Buck to the hand-wringing editorial board over at the Denver Post.
But nobody has stomped on the issue with more enthusiasm than gubernatorial opponent Scott McInnis. In the latest in a series of blasts denouncing the early release plan, Sheriff Scotty accuses the guv of fostering "a clear threat to public safety."
Bar the door and pass the ammo, son. The streets just ain't safe no more.
It's true that Ritter's plan is flawed. He assured folks he wouldn't be letting killers and sex offenders out early, and the Post's Kirk Mitchell has reported that several names on the early release list would suggest otherwise. But in the politically motivated hysteria surrounding the plan, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that these are people who are getting out of the system anyway. In some cases, they're only coming out a few days or a couple of weeks earlier, and it's hard to make a crime wave out of that.
In fact, Ritter's plan hardly qualifies as "early" release. The state used to routinely reward prisoners who demonstrated good behavior with discretionary parole, but only a small percentage of inmates get that any more. The vast majority serve out their sentences right up to their mandatory release date, then have a mandatory period of parole to complete on top of that. A good hunk of them end up back inside for parole failures, a dismal statistic explored at length in my 2006 feature "Over and Over Again."
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Ritter's plan targets offenders who are within six months of mandatory release. Shaving a few weeks off their sentences is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on the crime rate -- unless you release thousands at once. That's not happening. The Colorado Parole Board routinely turns down violent offenders for early release. McInnis claims that "the Governor is overriding the Parole Board," but he presents no evidence that's happening. Actually, the plan is being criticized in part because the board is denying so many early releases it's doubtful that much in the way of savings will be realized.
So what we're left with is a lot of fear-mongering about a timid plan. And the more promising part of the budget-cutting, the part that involves letting parolees who are doing well complete their parole early, gets no mention at all. That's a shame, because there's a case to be made for cost savings by shortening the lengthy mandatory parole period for those who have demonstrated that they can function well in the community. Among other benefits, reducing the length of the parole period reduces the chance that someone who is otherwise doing well will commit a technical violation, such as missing a curfew, that could land them back in prison.
One of the recent beneficiaries of the parole termination plan is Casey Holden, the subject of my blog series "I Shall Be Released." After a decade spent mostly behind bars, including four years in lockdown, Holden got out of prison in early 2007 with few prospects. But he refused to become a statistic. He found a crummy job, then a better one. He paid restitution, stayed clean, fulfilled the other conditions of his parole, started a family. As a reward, his parole has ended three months earlier than scheduled.
That's good for him -- and good for the taxpayer. Now his former parole officer can devote more attention to those hardcore felons who are getting out on parole a few days earlier than they would otherwise.