Longform

Clemency for these six prisoners could save millions and serve justice -- so why won't Governor Ritter try it?

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But while he was serving time at the Limon prison, a shank was found in his cell. Perez, who'd been moved to that cell only a few days earlier, admitted finding the knife in his mattress and failing to report it to the guards. A bad move all around — especially since the prison is situated in the Eighteenth Judicial District, where District Attorney Carol Chambers has sought astonishingly long habitual-criminal charges against chronic low-level offenders ("The Punisher," February 8, 2007).

Even in they're already in prison.

Even if they're about to be deported.

Perez was, in fact, on the verge of completing his sentence and being shipped back to Mexico by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when Chambers's office filed a fresh charge of contraband over the knife. The prosecution also sought to have him bitched as a three-time loser, which would require that he be given another 24 years — quadruple the usual sentence. That brought an angry protest from public defender Tom Ward.

"It just doesn't make sense to me," Ward said at one hearing. "How is that a good use of taxpayer money? To house someone who has three minor felony convictions, to house him for up to 24 years [at a cost of up to] $1.5 million when he simply will be deported right after that sentence?"

Judge William Sylvester thought Ward had a point. He initially sentenced Perez to eight years. The district attorney's office objected, and Sylvester recently relented and imposed the entire 24 years. That sentence is now under appeal.

Perez isn't eligible for clemency yet under the current rules. But he is symptomatic of a larger problem in the system. There are 1,324 offenders in the Colorado Department of Corrections who have detainers placed on them by ICE, costing the state close to $40 million a year to incarcerate them when they could be deported tomorrow. Some, of course, have committed numerous violent crimes that demand long sentences, and there's no guarantee they would not return to the state.

"Deportation provides no protection for the public," says District Attorney Chambers. "The only way to protect the public is to treat those who might be deported as we would anyone else."

But to date, no serious cost-benefit study has been done to determine which non-violent immigrant felons might be good candidates for a commutation that includes immediate deportation. It's possible that sending Perez and others like him out of the country could bring back to Colorado badly needed dollars — and sense.

Estimated savings if released: $661,457

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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