This past week wasn't a particularly bright one for criminal justice reform advocates in Colorado, as two high-profile parolees fell under scrutiny for less-than-stellar behavior.
First came a 9News report about how Joaquin Garcia, a 30-year-old man with a criminal past that includes gang activity and car theft, is currently residing at the Governor's Mansion, courtesy of his dad, Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia. Having already had his parole revoked once over failed drug and alcohol tests, the station reports, Joaquin has flunked an additional urine test in recent months and missed another.
That was followed by news out of Colorado Springs concerning the vehicular mayhem of Charles Limbrick.
Up until a few years ago, as we reported last week, Limbrick was serving a life sentence for killing his mother when he was fifteen. Limbrick was one of four juvenile lifers who had their sentences commuted by Governor Bill Ritter, shortly before Ritter left office in 2011.
Another of that group, Dietrick Mitchell, is still in prison, for convoluted reasons discussed in my recent feature "The Long Way Home."
Limbrick is currently on parole, and might well be headed back to prison after police say he smashed his van into a car, attempted to flee and twice rear-ended another vehicle, sending that driver to the hospital. The Colorado Springs Gazette reports that Limbrick told a police officer he drank coffee spiked with vodka, or possibly vodka seasoned with coffee, before the crash.
Such episodes are a pretty good indication of why early parole, such as the one Garcia received, is seldom granted — and clemency almost never. It's inspiring to hear about ex-cons who have defied the odds and turned their lives around, but there's no shortage of stories about felons who've been given repeated chances to reform and failed them all.
There's no political upside to offering mercy or mitigating punishment, no matter how much the individual circumstances of a case or the egregiousness of the sentence may demand it. Parole boards have always recognized this, and Governor John Hickenlooper caught on pretty fast in his first term, after the uproar that followed his decision to put the execution of Nathan Dunlap on hold.
Hickenlooper has avoided issuing any pardons or commutations to date and only recently got around to appointing a board to advise him on the issue. Nobody wants to be the guy who releases early the next Evan Ebel — or even the next Charles Limbrick.
But is the public any safer if we don't have some kind of rational clemency or parole process? Limbrick and Garcia have made their own choices, obviously, and will have to account for them. But it's telling that, in both cases, substance abuse appears to be at the center of the transgressions.
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The state does a pretty dismal job of preparing parolees for re-entry into society, particularly in the area of drug and alcohol treatment, and the vast majority of inmates have long-term substance abuse issues.
As pointed out in a feature a few months back looking at how the prison population is creeping back up after years of decline, technical violations of parole now account for 40 percent of all prison admissions. Four out of ten people going into the Colorado prison system every month aren't just going to prison; they're going back.
It's easy to demonize individual miscreants for screwing up for the third or fifth time. But what about a system of "corrections" that fails to correct anything over and over again?