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No escaping the prison system's dirty little secret

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The Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice is proving to be one of Governor Bill Ritter's more promising ideas for finding ways to trim the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars dumped into the state's prison system every year. The CCCJJ just released its annual report, which is full of hard data and concrete recommendations for overhauling the overworked and dysfunctional parole system. That system's failures is one of the greatest drains on the state budget, as showcased in my 2006 feature "Over and Over Again." 

Buried in the back of the report, though, is one of the most intriguing number-crunching sessions of all. Turn to Appendix I, "Escape White Paper," and you'll discover that escapes from custody are treated harshly in Colorado. Escape is a felony; a mandatory consecutive sentence (on top of the sentence the escapee is already serving) is required, and sometimes ends up being longer than the sentence for the original crime.

But here's the rub, Bub: Escapes aren't always what they seem.

Forget everything you've seen on Prison Break and in old Steve McQueen movies. To quote the white paper: "Fewer than ten individuals escape from a secure Department of Corrections facility every year. However, over 1,100 individuals annually are convicted of escape for behaviors that range from running from a police car to failing to return on time to a halfway house."

In 2006, over 90 percent of escape convictions resulted in a prison sentence. Fully a third of all parolees headed back to prison are being returned on an "escape" charge, meaning (in many cases) that they missed their curfew one night.

Judges don't have any discretion about heaping on extra time for escapes. Some prosecutors see the escape clause as another way to hammer low-level offenders and pile habitual-criminal charges on top of the escape charge. Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers (pictured, and figuring prominently in the December 18 article "CU in Court") routinely bitches halfway-house escapees; see our 2007 feature on the practice, "The Punisher."

The CCCJJ folks don't see much sense in penalizing all "escapes" so heavy-handedly. Protecting the community? More than two-thirds of those sentenced to prison for escape, it turns out, have no history of violent-crime convictions. "This broad brush approach to sentencing policy is not supported by the criminology literature," the white paper authors note, "which consistently reports the need for individualized interventions to reduce the likelihood of new criminal behavior and victimization."

In other words, the one-size-fits-all approach to punishing perpetual screwups in the Colorado system tends just to make things worse. That the CCCJJ folks recognize that may be the first step toward getting the legislature to rethink some of our more draconian measures, including this inescapable bit of bonehead law. --Alan Prendergast 

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