Hick's boost in parole spending a start -- but not a fix?

After the murder of Colorado Department of Corrections chief Tom Clements last spring by parole absconder Evan Ebel , it was obvious that the state's creaky, overburdened parole system was overdue for some serious scrutiny. Now, Governor John Hickenlooper has proposed a 25 percent boost in the parole budget for next year, in an effort to fill some of the gaping holes exposed by the assassination of the man he brought to Colorado to overhaul its prisons. But will it be enough to restore confidence in a system that's proven more adept at reaction than reform?

Hickenlooper and new DOC director Rick Raemisch have acknowledged repeatedly that the state needs to come up with more efficient offender management policies and, particularly, improved training of officers charged with the electronic monitoring of high-risk parolees -- key deficiencies identified in a National Institute of Corrections report released in August. Throwing another $10 million at the problem -- not such a hefty sum, when you take into account how little of DOC's $650 million annual operating budget actually goes to any kind of reentry programs -- won't fix it, but Raemisch has also stressed the need for a larger "culture change" within the system.

The grim truth is that many of the most troubling problems with Colorado's approach to parole can't be addressed by simply adding more officers to the street. The state went to a mandatory parole system back in the 1990s, requiring offenders to complete a parole period at the end of their sentences, regardless of whether they behaved well and qualified for "early release" (discetionary parole) or not. The result was that almost no one got out early, the incentive for inmates to work hard to prepare for release largely evaporated, and the rate of parole failures skyrocketed.

Under Clements, attention to viable reentry strategies became paramount -- but it's slow going in a system built around revolving doors, as Raemisch is finding out. Another critical component of reform involves reducing the state's over-reliance on solitary confinement as a management tool, which has led to disturbed, violent cases like Ebel being released directly from years of "ad-seg" to the street. Or, as Ebel himself put it in a series of grievances filed with prison officials shortly before he got out, cut off his ankle monitor and went on his last rampage: "Do you have an obligation to the public to reacclimate me, the dangerous inmate, to being around other human beings prior to being released and, if not, why?"

Thanks to Clements, the DOC has reduced the percentage of its population in solitary confinement by half in recent years. But there's more work to be done there and in other areas that form pieces of the puzzle. A DOC document cited in this morning's Denver Post article on the budget hike states that current reentry efforts are still "inadequate to ameliorate offenders sufficiently to meet the demands of parole." The notion that the prison system can "ameliorate" offenders without ameliorating itself may be one of the biggest problems of all.

More from our Prison Life archive circa August: "Prison system needs improved monitoring, 'change of culture,' new chief says."

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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