Over and Over Again

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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.

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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