Over and Over Again

Having been deep in it most of his life, John "Jake" Johnson can smell trouble coming. So last year, when the fifty-year-old inmate found out he would be paroling from a private prison in Trinidad to a homeless shelter in downtown Denver, the news smelled very bad indeed.

"I told my case manager,'I can't go back to a shelter,'" he recalls. "You put me in that atmosphere, people drinking and shooting dope and smoking crack, and man! I can't help what I am."

What Johnson is, among other things, is an alcoholic and a thief. He started drinking heavily in his teens, around the time his father died and his large family had to move from an upper-middle-class neighborhood in east Denver to a housing project on the west side. "That changed my life right there," he says. "I'm not using it as an excuse, but it might have been a defining moment. My dad died, we went to the projects, and that was it." He dropped out of high school, picked up a juvenile record, then an extensive adult rap sheet -- burglary, robbery, auto theft -- that has kept him weaving in and out of the prison system for most of the past three decades.

Throughout his erratic criminal career, Johnson has been consistent in one area: He's been a thoroughly unsuccessful parolee. Each time he received parole, he'd get a job, start drinking -- and end up going back to prison on a parole violation. The first few times that happened, he'd complete his sentence behind bars ("kill his number," in convict lingo), then return to the streets.

But in 1993, Colorado lawmakers decided to add up to five years of mandatory parole that prisoners must complete, whether they serve their full sentence or not. For thousands of cons like Johnson, battling drug and alcohol problems and with few outside resources to help them make it back on the streets, the practical effect of mandatory parole was to tack years of additional incarceration onto their sentences, even if their crime was relatively minor.

Johnson's current sentence dates back to 1999, when he helped himself to $1,500 that belonged to his employer, a bail bondsman. He was originally sentenced to four years of probation. He completed seven months in a halfway house, then was supposed to move into his own place -- but he took off for Utah instead. After that, he was sent to prison for six months, served four months on parole, then absconded again. This time he got another six months in prison, followed by six months of intensive supervision parole (ISP), during which he wore an electronic ankle bracelet and his urine was regularly tested for alcohol. The ISP program "worked like a charm," Johnson says, but after it ended, he was off on another drinking binge -- and on his way back to prison for another six months.

Last June, almost six years after his four-year sentence began, Johnson learned that the Colorado Department of Corrections was preparing to put him on the streets yet again. This time he was told to report to New Genesis, a Denver homeless shelter. "I wanted to go to the Salvation Army drug-and-alcohol program," he says. "It's away from all that. But they said I had to go to New Genesis. That's where they had room for me."

Johnson arrived in Denver with eleven dollars to his name. He was issued a pager at a parole office and told to call in every time it beeped. He signed up for food stamps. The state paid his first two weeks' rent at New Genesis, but after that, he was on his own.

"The first thing you got to do is get working, no matter where," Johnson says. "Got to get the drug-and-alcohol classes, too. That's 25 bucks a week. And the UAs [urinalysis]. They want your restitution paid, too. You got all these bills mounting up the minute you hit the street."

New Genesis wasn't as bad as Johnson feared. "It was just a nasty place," he says. "You got people going in and out drunk and shit like that. The regular crowd is pretty much all DOC, and they're drinking, too. There was a heroin overdose in the shower the week I got there. But a guy could probably make it down there if he really puts his mind to it."

Johnson tried to do just that. He found day-labor and temp jobs right away. His pager went off three or four times a day, and each time he dropped whatever he was doing and headed for a phone. But his job-hunting range was restricted by his lack of a car or a bus pass, and he was reluctant to leave the shelter phone number as a contact for potential employers. After three weeks, the dead-end grimness of it all put his mind to having a drink. He left the shelter and didn't look back.

For a few days he continued to answer his pager -- until he lost it. Drinking every day and living on the streets began to catch up with him. He knew that sooner or later the DOC would catch up with him, too. He was arrested last September and, just as he expected, the hearing officer revoked his parole and handed him another 180-day "turnaround" behind bars.

But that wasn't all. A few days later, Johnson was brought into a Denver courtroom and informed that he was being charged not only with a parole violation, but with a new crime: escape. Until that moment, he insists, nobody told him that the pager meant he was again on intensive supervision parole. Walking away from ISP carries an automatic felony escape charge. Although calling his supervision "intensive" might be a stretch -- Johnson says he had only one brief meeting with his parole officer during his three weeks at the shelter -- he was now facing four to twelve years in prison for failing to follow the rules.

"I was shocked," he says. "There were all these guys in county [jail] with me who were charged with escape, too, guys who'd been living in shelters or at home with pagers. I couldn't believe it. When the judge told me I was looking at another twelve years, I couldn't even speak. I just about shit my pants."

His back against the wall, Johnson readily accepted a plea deal that added one year to his sentence for the escape. He's now in the Sterling Correctional Facility, serving the rest of his drawn-out time. With good behavior, he should be back on the streets by this time next year, with another two years of parole to do. Assuming he actually finishes his parole this time, his theft of $1,500 will have cost him nearly a decade of his life -- and cost Colorado taxpayers roughly a quarter million dollars in incarceration costs, court appearances and other expenses related to his incessant parole failures.

Multiply Johnson's situation by several thousand similarly situated inmates, and you can see how Colorado's troubled parole system is punishing everyone in the state. The population of parolees is skyrocketing in Colorado; so is the failure rate. And most of the failures are chronic, low-level offenders like Johnson -- many of them homeless, all of them caught in a complex and exceedingly expensive revolving door.

In January, DOC officials stunned state legislators with a request for more than half a billion dollars in additional funding to keep up with the projected growth rate of the prison population. The number of Colorado inmates has grown at more than twice the national average over the past decade and now stands at more than 21,000; it's expected to increase to 29,000 by 2011. Just providing beds for that influx will require $386 million to build new prisons and an additional $168 million in operating costs for those prisons over the next five years, DOC officials say. This, of course, is on top of the department's $600 million annual budget.

Lawmakers were appalled by the DOC's pronouncement and scrambled to come up with alternatives. But department spokesmen defended their hefty request, arguing that it was a logical outcome of anticipated population growth and neglect of prison-expansion needs during the recent years of budget cuts. Missing from the discussion, though, was any acknowledgement that the bed shortage is a direct result of the parole logjam.

No one talked about the inmates who have technically been "paroled" but will remain in prison until their mandatory release date; the inmates whose paroles have been postponed or denied because there's no place to put them once they're released; and, most costly of all, the hordes of parolees who are winding up right back in the system again, heaped with parole violations or serving time for "new crimes" that, in many cases, are directly related to the conditions of their parole.

More than half of all parolees fail to complete parole the first time around, and the numbers are getting worse. In the last fiscal year, 6,443 Colorado prisoners were released on parole. During the same twelve-month period, 3,473 parolees returned to prison, after an average stay on the streets of ten months. Of the 9,415 "new" inmates entering the state's prisons last year, one in three was a parole violator going back to serve more time on an old sentence. If current trends continue, within a few years the figure will be one in two.

Defenders of the current system say parole isn't supposed to be easy and that there will always be failures. But reformers contend that parole in Colorado has become unduly complicated, onerous and unworkable; they'd like to see the system scrapped or substantially overhauled. By investing even modest sums in additional resources for parolees -- including crucial but politically unpopular programs that provide transitional housing, job training and substance-abuse treatment -- the success rate could change dramatically, they suggest, freeing up prison beds for more serious criminals and saving tens of millions of dollars now sought for more prisons.

"There are a lot of people going back to prison intentionally because they can't make it out here," says Christie Donner, co-director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "We just haven't built a very good re-entry system in Colorado. Paroling homeless is not a parole plan."

But fixing parole won't be easy, either. Three years ago Donner's group helped pass legislation designed to ease the parole backlog. But the new law seems to have had some unintended consequences, including more revocations and a sizable leap in the number of new felony charges filed against parole violators. And no one has come up with a simple answer for the growing ranks of homeless parolees such as Jake Johnson.

"I've brought all my trouble on myself," Johnson says. "I don't deny that. But I can't get into that shelter environment and be expected to succeed. It seems like there's no place for a homeless parolee to go but downtown. And when a guy gets downtown, he's just lost."

The Colorado Board of Parole holds more than 16,000 hearings a year to consider applications for parole. Last year it also held more than 9,000 hearings to consider revoking inmates' parole. That works out to more than seventy hearings a day, but only parole hearings involving violent offenders require a review by the full seven-member board. Most hearings are conducted by a single boardmember or an attorney serving as a hearing officer, and they last just a few minutes.

A frequent stop for the ever-roaming board members is the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, which houses inmates just coming into the prison system on a new sentence -- or returning from somewhere else. On this particular morning, board chairman Allan Stanley starts reviewing parole applications at a table on one side of the visiting room, while his colleague Verne Saint Vincent, a former Aurora police chief, conducts revocation hearings on the other side. Inmates are escorted to the room one at a time. Between them, Stanley and Saint Vincent make it through close to twenty cases in under two hours.

Stanley, a former Englewood police officer and ex-deputy director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, interviews the applicants with brisk efficiency. The inmates offer the usual explanations for their crimes ("I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time; the guy who forged that check got it from the lady I was seeing at the time") and the usual responses to the question of why they should be paroled ("I just want to get out and rehabilitate myself as soon as possible"). Stanley has heard it all before.

More than half of the state's prisoners are past their parole-eligibility date, the day on which they can first appear before the parole board. To Stanley, it's a meaningless statistic; the board isn't obliged to release someone just because he's eligible. Of greater concern to the chairman is the number of short-term prisoners he sees at Denver Reception who've spent months in county jails awaiting trial, just arrived in the DOC, and are already approaching their mandatory release date. In those cases, the board is simply rubber-stamping a release for someone who's had no chance to enroll in drug treatment or other prison programs that are supposed to help alter criminal behavior.

"You just got here, and it looks like you're going out on the 28th of this month," Stanley says, thumbing through one inmate's paperwork. "What do you want to say to me?"

Stephen O'Hara, a 21-year-old doing time for possession of marijuana, shrugs and smiles faintly. "I don't think there's anything I can say to you that you don't already know," he replies.

"Good luck to you," Stanley says.

Prior to 1993, parole in Colorado was essentially a form of early release: Prisoners who exhibited good behavior and completed programs were rewarded with parole. But since the advent of mandatory parole, the number of prisoners granted "discretionary parole" has declined drastically. Last year, less than 10 percent of parole hearings resulted in an early release; in most cases, the board either denied the application or ordered parole at the time of mandatory release -- which allows those inmates to be counted as "paroled" when, in fact, they're doing the maximum amount of time in prison that the law allows, less the "good time" computations the DOC routinely shaves off their sentences.

Knowing they're not likely to get an early release reduces prisoners' incentive to take the programs that are supposed to equip them for life on the streets; consequently, the recidivism rate for mandatory parole is significantly higher than that of discretionary parole. Of the inmates released on mandatory parole in 2001, roughly two out of three were back in prison for a new crime or a parole violation within three years, compared to 52 percent of those granted early release. Still, Stanley is a strong advocate of mandatory parole. Prior to 1993, he points out, dangerous offenders such as rapist Brent Brents could kill their number in prison and emerge with no supervision at all.

"Repeat offenders don't want to come out under supervision," he says. "They'd rather do their time. The mandatory parole is an important transition."

Early release can have its disappointments, too. One of the applicants Stanley sees today is Joseph Deaguero, 41, a heavily tattooed convict with a history of escapes, thefts and substance abuse. Stanley recommended his early release two years ago and took his case to the full board, only to see him fail on parole.

"I'm really disappointed in you," Stanley says, eyeing Deaguero's file.

"I'm disappointed in myself," says Deaguero. Behind him sits his wife of seven months and his stepdaughter, who have come to support his latest parole bid.

Stanley asks him what happened. Foot-dancing nervously under his chair, Deaguero launches into an explanation about violating parole conditions in order to "bond" with his mother, who was moving out of state; the account shows he's picked up some of the self-help jargon tossed around DOC classes. "I just used some poor decision-making," he says. "I did some negative thinking. I accept responsibility for my mistake.... I just ask the parole board to give me another chance to be a productive member of society. I have a family now. I got strong support, a good job. I know I can make it."

But there's no early release for Deaguero this time. His case is deferred until next year, when his mandatory release date (MRD) comes up. Of all the inmates Stanley sees this morning, every one will be released effective on his mandatory release date or deferred, most likely until an approaching MRD makes parole inevitable. Given the board's view that almost every inmate can "benefit" from more time inside, and the fact that the inmates all have to do mandatory parole anyway, early release just isn't an option for most prisoners any more -- which raises the question of why Colorado still has a parole board at all.

The knock on the current boardmembers, all appointed by Governor Bill Owens, is that they have a lock-'em-up mentality and seldom parole anyone they don't have to. Under state law, the board is supposed to be composed of two representatives with a law enforcement background, one former parole or probation officer, and four citizens. Stanley's board has two citizens, an ex-parole officer, an ex-police chief, an ex-state trooper, a former corrections officer and Stanley himself, who has thirty years in law enforcement. That's a lot of cops, but Stanley says they happen to be "citizens," too.

"We were going through a number of citizens who would only stay on the board a matter of weeks," he explains. "And they're all supposed to have a working knowledge of the criminal justice system. That's very hard to find. Verne Saint Vincent had been retired three years. He argued successfully with the governor that he didn't give up his citizenship when he retired."

And while changing the makeup of the board might have a modest impact on the early release numbers, it's unlikely to have much effect on the miserable failure rate of parole overall. "There are two things I have noticed that impact recidivism," Stanley says. "One of them is simply age. They get too old to commit a crime or mature out of it. The second thing is the ability to make a living -- and meaningful programs that help them with their addiction problems. They need more programming, but a lot of them can't make enough money to pay for all the programs they're supposed to take. So they're really not getting what they need."

Stanley says the most encouraging development he's seen in years is the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center, a privately operated, medium-security prison in Colorado Springs that opened last summer and focuses on educational, vocational and treatment programs for inmates who are headed for parole. The operation is far more intensive than the DOC's previous pre-release facility in Cañon City, which couldn't handle the growing crunch of parole-eligible inmates. The department had been seeking a private contractor for years and settled on Community Education Centers of New Jersey, which boasts studies that show a drop in recidivism attributed to similar efforts in other states.

"That's just exactly what they need," says Stanley. "It's a wonderful transition out for people who have been in DOC for a long time."

Three years ago, the state legislature decided to create more options for dealing with parole violators. Senate Bill 252, which Christie Donner's reform group helped to write, limits the amount of time low-level offenders must serve on a technical violation to 180 days. Instead of simply shipping nonviolent parolees back to prison for a year or more because they did something stupid, the parole board is now required to send them to one of five "return-to-custody facilities" in the community -- a kind of halfway house where parolees can focus on programs stressing "relapse prevention" and prepare to finish their parole successfully.

"The intention was to do a better job of working with people in the community," explains Donner. "People were going back to prison for things that were not inherently criminal in nature -- not having a job, not having a place to live. When two-thirds of the people on mandatory parole are being revoked -- and at the time we wrote 252, the vast majority were on a technical violation -- that should send up red flags. We can't simply throw people back into prison and have them come out in the same boat they were in before. It's a ridiculous waste of money."

The new law was expected to save the state millions of dollars over the next few years by freeing up prison space. However, DOC officials claim that any savings from S.B. 252 have been greatly reduced by a 33 percent increase in revocation hearings; apparently, more parolees are failing now that the penalties for failure seem less severe. At the same time, more parole violators are facing charges for new crimes than ever before, further complicating the revocation process and possibly adding more prison time than they would have had under the old system.

"Some of these guys are on their third or fourth revocation now," says Stanley, who agrees with certain features of S.B. 252 but laments that it's taken some discretion away from the board. "They go in for six months and come right back out."

Jeaneene Miller, director of the DOC's division of adult parole, says S.B. 252 has allowed more flexibility in dealing with minor parole violators. There are now 212 offenders in the return-to-custody beds, and she expects that number to reach 300 by the end of the year. But she, too, says that 180 days isn't enough time for some of them.

"For certain populations, it should be a longer return to DOC," she says. "Their background warrants that level of intervention. You might have someone whose current conviction is a class 5 or 6 [felony], but he has a history of aggravated robbery and a severe drug dependency and needs to go back for a longer period of time."

The idea that parole violators "deserve" more time than S.B. 252 allows might help explain why the number of parolees going back to prison on new felony convictions has jumped a whopping 83 percent in the past year, from 450 to 824. Before S.B. 252 came along, Stanley says, many violators would self-revoke -- they'd simply admit to a parole violation and ask to be returned to prison. New charges pending for, say, doing drugs or walking away from a shelter would be routinely dismissed because they were going back to prison anyway. But now the board rarely allows self-revocation, and prosecutors, at the urging of parole officers, are filing more felony charges on top of the parole violations.

"When they self-revoked, it would show up statistically as a technical parole violation rather than a new crime," Stanley says. "Now you're seeing the truth."

Donner views the hike in new felonies as a DOC tactic to do an end-run around the intent of the law. "New crimes aren't always what they seem," she says. "You can be late coming back to a halfway house, and that can be considered an escape. I know of a woman who was sent back last week for having a cell phone -- that's contraband. If [the DOC is] satisfied with how much time they're getting for technical violations, then they don't file for new crimes."

But heaping more charges on offenders for what are essentially parole violations is wrongheaded, Donner insists: "Let's recognize that re-entry is extremely, extremely difficult. We need to provide greater support for the people coming out. When you revoke someone for a minor violation, all you've done is obliterate what they've been able to put together in their life. The more appropriate response for someone who's on the edge -- maybe they're starting to use drugs, maybe they're hanging out with people they shouldn't be around -- is to use intermediate sanctions in the community."

When the DOC presented its king-sized budget request to the legislature three months ago, Representative Bernie Buescher, a Democrat who once ran for lieutenant governor, demanded to know what the agency was doing to reduce recidivism. DOC director Joe Ortiz replied that he had no control over how many prisoners the courts send him or how long they're expected to stay.

The answer failed to impress Buescher. He intimated that the agency should stop automatically expanding to accommodate its caseload and start looking at its performance. He wanted the DOC to come up with a plan to improve the success rate of its clientele, rather than simply feed on its failures.

He's still waiting for that plan. "The silence has been deafening," Buescher says. "Some of the departments don't believe they can actually control their budgets. This is a classic example."

Buescher's no expert on prisons, he adds, but he believes that the DOC needs to set goals for reducing recidivism and then make management changes to achieve them. "They have a recidivism rate that's dropped slightly over the last four years, from 52 to 49 percent," he notes. "But how does that compare with other states? We need to look at that, yet they're complaining about their caseload. If it wasn't so sad, it would be comic."

When prisoners do get paroled from the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, the chances are pretty good that, a few weeks or months later, they'll wind up 200 yards down Smith Road from where they started -- at the Denver County Jail, awaiting a parole revocation hearing and the trip back to the DRDC.

Administrative hearing officer Tom Waters conducts revocations at the jail with a kind of tightly controlled urgency that makes parole hearings seem almost leisurely by comparison. There are plenty of obligatory advisements and procedural niceties to follow, and an ever-shifting cast of inmates, parole officers and manila files, but Waters, an attorney who's been doing revocations for the parole board for three years, manages to keep it all moving along. He averages 180 hearings a month.

The accused parole violators are men and women, black, white and brown. Mostly, they are resigned, their voices faint in the cavernous visiting room.

"I understand why I should be violated -- revoked," says one woman, who's been charged with failing to report to her parole officer and has a new conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia. "I'm just ready to get back on the right track."

"I been doing good," says another, arrested on a charge of solicitation. "I just went on Colfax, and I shouldn't have. I ended up following my mind and not doing the right thing."

"I ate a burger, and I got really sick," says a ponytailed male who's picked up municipal court convictions for disturbing the peace, trespassing and unlawful public indecency, all over one bad night on downtown's mean streets. "I was crapping, was what I was doing. I was in the bathroom of a hotel for three hours. They kicked me out of there, so I had to go somewhere else.... Since I got off ISP, it's been a nightmare. I got kicked out of New Genesis for someone else's stupidity."

If the parolee has already been found guilty of a new crime, that simplifies Waters's job. A new crime is a self-evident parole violation that almost always warrants revocation. In other instances, new charges are still pending; Waters postpones action on those cases until later, lining up three inmates at a time to grant continuances. Over the course of a morning, he continues eight cases, sends two inmates back to prison (including Mr. Bad Burger) and allows another to proceed on parole.

"It's never a great joy to revoke someone's parole," Waters says later, when he has a few moments to reflect on his work. "It's a tough business. These are individuals who we're trying to get back into the world. But it's not just a litany of failure that is being brought before me. You'd be surprised at the number of times the parole officer says good things about how hard this individual has been trying. Sometimes the individual is going to be continued on parole, with new conditions."

Parole chief Miller says that despite caseloads well in excess of recommended levels, her officers work hard to keep nonviolent parolees from going back to prison. "I don't think people realize how many things we do to work with a client before sending them back," she says. "Typically, we have multiple parole violations before they go before the board. We go through positive drug test after drug test, we increase treatment and supervision. We go in and ask for modifications to the parole agreement. There are so many intermediate steps you can take -- unless you have a new crime, a weapon, or someone who is truly a public-safety risk."

But how many of the new crimes actually consist of a drug relapse, walking away from a shelter or some other offense that would hardly merit prison time for someone who wasn't on parole? The DOC doesn't keep statistics on such matters, but Waters acknowledges that a "significant" number of the new crimes that pop up in revocation hearings are simply escape charges. Failing to report to a parole officer, to maintain a stable residence or to refrain from alcohol or drugs are the most common technical violations he sees, but if the same incident has resulted in criminal charges, it becomes a quick trip back to the slammer.

"The commission of a crime while on parole is a serious matter," he says. "If it's a felony, there's virtually no chance the individual is going to continue on parole."

Sara Steen, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has been following revocation hearings for months as part of a long-term study of state parole policy. Although her data is still being collected, Steen has formed preliminary impressions of why some parolees seem to succeed while others fail. Some of it depends on the type of offender or even the type of parole officer assigned to the case, she suggests; less experienced officers push harder to revoke on more minor violations. But a key indicator is homelessness.

"The major obstacle for most of these people is housing," Steen says. "It's virtually impossible to succeed if you don't have a place to stay."

Some parolees arrive on Smith Road without even a shelter placement. All they have when they alight from the prison bus that drops them there is a state check for a hundred bucks (cashable at a nearby liquor store, which charges a 10 percent fee), a box containing whatever worldly goods they've managed to hang on to in prison, and some vague directions to a cut-rate motel that will devour the balance of their funds in two or three days. If they're lucky, they might also have a phone number for someone like Rose Herrera, who's worked with homeless parolees for nine years through an outreach program at the Denver Inner City Parish.

Herrera is now the parish office manager, but parolees still seek her out, hoping she can help them negotiate the bewildering world of the streets. She tries to find a place for them to stay, knowing the first few weeks on parole are critical.

"The majority of them get revoked," she says. "A lot of them commit a crime so they can self-revoke and go back to prison. They know they can't make it out here."

According to Herrera, it's not uncommon for parolees to go back to prison on technical violations alone, including the common offense of "association" -- hanging out with other ex-cons. "I had one guy go back because the parole office found out his dad was in prison twelve years ago," she says. "They didn't find out about it until he'd been living with his dad for two months. He's back in county right now. Another went back because at his job he worked with two other guys who were on parole."

There are more resources for parolees now than there were a decade ago, Herrera says, including programs developed by faith-based groups such as her parish. But state-funded parole services -- such as the John Inmann Work and Family Center, a key resource for job-hunting and treatment programs -- were hit hard by the budget cuts of the past few years. And Herrera doesn't think re-entry programs are as keen a priority for the corrections bureaucracy as, say, building a second supermax prison.

"The case manager has to do a lot of work before someone comes out to make sure they're going to make it," she says. "It seems to me that DOC, community corrections, all these people are not interested in what happens to these guys when they get out. Everything is set up to fail. They don't pay their rent on time, they go back. How can a guy be on ISP, have no job and be expected to pay for three UAs a week?"

Miller insists her "re-entry specialists" do their best to hook up parolees with an array of assistance, from bus tokens to drug programs to even springing for initial therapy sessions. Housing remains one of the biggest problems.

"With mandatory parole, you tend to have a group that comes out without resources," Miller says. "Especially the long-term offenders. We have an increase in those who are coming out to homeless shelters. We're aware of that. We're trying to develop more transitional services. But they may abscond just because they're looking for a place to live."

According to Tim Hand, assistant director of operations for the parole division, 85 percent of the parolees assigned to the Sherman Street office, a few blocks south of Colfax, are coming out homeless. Although that office isn't as large as some others in the metro area, it handles the bulk of the Denver cases.

"A lot of these guys have a tendency to burn bridges along the way, even with their own families," says Hand. "It's quite a challenge for us. Our officers do everything they can to keep them on track."

Miller believes the parole division has a "pretty good system" for helping to stabilize its errant clients. The tough part of the job, she says, is overcoming community opposition to having parolees in their midst at all; battles over the siting of halfway houses and neighborhood parole offices have become increasingly acrimonious. Getting employers, landlords and others to support the return of thousands of felons, many of whom will fail, isn't easy, either.

"Unless they have a death sentence or life without parole, everybody's going to come back some day," Miller notes. "The community has to reach out to them, mentor them -- not just tolerate them, but engage them, make them a part of the community. That's critical. It's very unrealistic for the public to believe that someone who has a drug or alcohol problem can go into prison, get cured, come out and never use drugs or alcohol again. These are people who are going to need support services for a lifetime."

Jake Johnson doesn't want to go downtown again. The thought of being stuck in a shelter -- with a pager and no money and the bills piling up, competing for pissant jobs and services against men much younger than him...men who don't have his criminal record...tired, angry men lining up at five o'clock to get a shot at a mat on the floorŠ It's all more horrible than anything he's experienced in prison.

"I'm scared to death to go down there again," he says.

So Johnson has a plan. He has reconnected with one of his sisters and wants to parole to her place in Arvada next time. He's been learning a trade in prison, graphic arts, and has visions of meaningful employment ahead. First, of course, there's the matter of parole, which he expects to be as difficult as possible.

"They'll probably throw me an ankle bracelet and keep an eye on me all the time," he says. "With my track record? You bet."

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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