Over and Over Again

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"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."

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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