Shelter From the Storm

Donta Page never should have been allowed to leave a Maryland prison, never should have entered a private treatment facility in Denver, never should have spotted 24-year-old Peyton Tuthill outside her Gaylord Street duplex that day in February 1999.

Had Donta Page never come to Colorado, Peyton Tuthill would be alive today.

But for history to be rewritten with that happy ending, the state of Maryland would have had to follow all the provisions of the interstate compact, a 64-year-old agreement that requires one state to notify another when a parolee or probationer is headed its way. Had Maryland complied with the law, Colorado would have known that a 22-year-old convict sentenced to ten years in prison for armed robbery had been released early by a judge on the provision that he enter a drug-treatment facility. And Colorado would have known that Page had been kicked out of that facility, Stout Street, for bad behavior, free to roam the streets while he awaited a return trip to Maryland.

Page was out just long enough to break into Tuthill's home on February 24, 1999, and to commit the horrific murder for which he's since been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Unlike his victim, he escaped death. (For more on his trial, see the conclusion of Steve Jackson's "Penalty Zone" in this issue.)

Had Page never left Maryland, Peyton Tuthill would be alive, Colorado would have one less statute, and Denver City Council would not be holding next week's public hearing on the regulation of private treatment facilities. But the law of unintended consequences has now taken hold.

For over two years, Pat Tuthill has fought to make legal changes that would have prevented her daughter's death. She's campaigned to tighten loopholes in the interstate compact, to punish states that fail to fulfill their obligations (she filed suit against Maryland officials earlier this year), to set up state councils designed to improve supervision, to establish a national database that would track the hundreds of thousands of parolees and probationers who move every year -- 250,000 of them, according to the National Institute of Corrections.

The Colorado Legislature hurried to close its own gaps, approving the revised interstate compact but also taking steps to ensure that Colorado would never again be at the mercy of another state's compliance. "Although Colorado is a signatory to the interstate compact," 1999's House Bill 1353 pronounced, "more information concerning out-of-state offenders is necessary for the protection of the citizens of Colorado, and it may be necessary to further regulate programs that provide treatment and services to such persons." The bill took a broad view of what constituted an offender, mandating that any "unsupervised person" convicted of a crime in another state who wanted to attend a private treatment program in Colorado had to register with the Interstate Compact Office -- even if that office wasn't required to track the person, even if the crime was a DUI. And whether acting under court orders or seeking help entirely on their own, any out-of-staters who wanted to enter a private treatment program would first have to appear "at the local law-enforcement agency for fingerprinting and photographing." That guaranteed that no Donta Page would slip through the cracks; it also meant that some private individuals would never get help for their alcoholism, their drug addictions ("A Mile High," March 1).

Denver, too, moved quickly to make sure that no monster like Donta Page would ever again be let loose on city streets.

On March 18, 1999, Mayor Wellington Webb announced that the city would introduce a program that would allow Denver Community Corrections to reject violent criminals seeking placement in private treatment facilities; he also called for oversight of any private facilities in the city that accepted criminal offenders.

That summer, officials with the Denver City Attorney's Office and Denver Community Corrections, as well as representatives of assorted treatment providers and neighborhood groups, began drafting an ordinance that would deal with regulatory issues not already addressed by the new state law. Private, nonprofit homeless shelters were invited to participate in the discussions; none did. "It was, by later admission, their intention to make certain they were not under the resulting ordinance," notes Briggs Gamblin, the city council liaison who's coordinated the project.

And, in fact, the city thought it had exempted shelters from the ordinance passed by council in spring 2000, which called for licensing private, for-profit and nonprofit facilities that specialized in the treatment of substance abuse as well as psychiatric, psychological and other behavioral disorders. But it soon became clear that enforcing the ordinance would affect any shelters that provided services beyond "a hot and a cot."

At that point, private organizations ranging from the Salvation Army to Samaritan House to the Denver Rescue Mission told the city that rather than participate in any licensure program, they'd simply cease accepting any homeless people who were covered by the ordinance in any way.

If the city's statute proved as inadvertently broad as the state's, that could translate into a thousand people left out in the cold every year.

According to Jeneene Miller, director of Parole and Community Corrections for Colorado, as many as a hundred criminal offenders with no family or visible means of support are released each month in the metro area -- and her office tries to come up with a place for every one of them, whether ordered to do so or not. "Our primary interest is public safety," she says, and so the goal is to make sure "the parolee has a place to stay, a place with services provided that will help a successful parole period, a successful transition." More often than not, the place her office finds for a parolee is in one of Denver's large, nonprofit shelters.

If the shelters no longer accepted parolees, they'd wind up on the streets -- exactly where the city didn't want them.

And so Denver put the ordinance on hold for months while a working group of city officials, service providers and neighborhood activists hammered out a compromise that would move the new standards into Denver's Revised Municipal Code rather than create a licensing system. For the "faith-based facilities," that was a key distinction, says City Attorney Jim Thomas.

"It was the idea of being licensed we didn't like," says Brad Meuli, president and CEO of the Denver Rescue Mission. "It made us feel like we were part of community corrections." The shelters were also concerned that the original ordinance painted offenders with too broad of a brush. "It included everyone," Meuli says. "This revision basically deals with crimes against persons. Before, a DUI or even a traffic ticket came into play."

"We can all live with this version, which beats the heck out of the original," adds another provider.

But while the shelters are now on board for the revised ordinance, introduced as Council Bill 520 at Monday night's meeting, the measure still faces opposition.

In a letter to Webb, Pat Tuthill accused the mayor of breaking his word in abandoning the licensure approach. Other critics of the compromise claimed the shelters engaged in "political extortion" by refusing to accept offenders unless the ordinance was changed.

Speaking for a number of providers, Meuli disputes that charge. "Since 1892, Denver Rescue Mission has been providing services with no government funding," he says. "As a faith-based organization, we couldn't go out and say we're now part of the government." Nor could the shelters suddenly discontinue the additional services they'd been providing so many people for so many years, even though limiting their scope to simply providing meals and beds would have exempted them from the ordinance.

"The majority get involved in some kind of other services," Meuli says of his shelter's residents. "We want the neighborhoods to be safe. We want these folks to come into the facility, get off the streets for the night, and then we encourage them to get into our rehabilitation program."

With the compromise, down-on-their-luck parolees will still be able to get a hand up.

Gamblin considers the revised ordinance "a reasonable compromise between legitimate competing groups."

Monday's hearing will show whether those groups agree.


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