Department of Public Safety Proposes Temporary Halfway House Contracts

A short-term fix to Denver's halfway house conundrum appears to be on its way. Today, August 21, the Department of Public Safety unveiled a plan to sign temporary contracts with private prison companies GEO Group and CoreCivic to keep their combined six Denver halfway houses running.

Department officials would like Denver City Council to vote on the contracts as early as August 26 to ensure that the 492 halfway house residents aren't sent back to jail or prison. The announcement comes about two weeks after council, led by Candi CdeBaca, unexpectedly voted against renewing the halfway house contracts with the companies.

"We're optimistic that we can move this forward," said Troy Riggs, executive director of Public Safety, at an August 21 press conference during which the city announced its plan.

The contract with GEO would begin retroactively on July 1 and run through the end of the year. The contract with CoreCivic would be for twelve months, retroactively beginning July 1 and running through June 2020.

"It's certainly an aggressive time frame. And we're going to do everything we can to meet it. We've heard city council and will follow their direction and wishes on this topic," said Greg Mauro, Denver's director of community corrections, at the press conference.

Public safety officials believe they can more quickly transition the approximately 150 residents at the two GEO halfway houses to other halfway houses or back into the community, according to Mauro. Since the four CoreCivic facilities have a total of 360 beds, the city is asking for a year-long transition.

Denver's other halfway house facilities are operated by family-run Independence House and the University of Colorado, bringing the city's total number of halfway house beds to 748. Nearly 300 people are on the wait list for space at a house. Placements are currently on hold for the GEO and CoreCivic homes and are likely to only be restarted for the CoreCivic properties, given their longer proposed transition timelines.

"I cannot promise you or the residents of this community that we're going to be able to get up to 748 again. It's going to be very difficult, even with the year extension along those timelines," Riggs said.

Since August 5, the day of the city council vote, the Department of Public Safety has been scrambling to figure out a backup plan to ensure that halfway house residents wouldn't be sent back to prison or jail. In the past weeks, GEO and CoreCivic have kept their Denver halfway houses open while new contracts have been negotiated.

The Department of Public Safety also announced a new thirteen-member advisory committee, headed by Mauro, to help the city move away from private prison company-operated halfway houses. Committee members will be selected "based on their expertise in community corrections programming and its impacts on the local and state criminal justice systems, the service delivery model and impacts on clients, victims, families and neighborhoods," according to a statement from Kelli Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety. Christensen says that committee recommendations will be made to Riggs by the end of January 2020.

Around that same time, city council is likely to approve zoning-code amendments that will make it easier for halfway house companies to expand capacity in Denver, part of a group-living zoning-code update that the city has been working on for over a year and a half.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.