Over and Over Again

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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.

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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