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Pandering Over Parole at the Statehouse

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The current rumpus over whether the state prison system is letting too many criminal fiends out on parole is a pretty good example of what Governor Bill Ritter is up against in his effort to bring some economic common sense to our criminal justice system — namely, a bunch of thick-browed, pandering politicos who know that being "tough on crime" sells, and to hell with the cost or the evidence.

This week the Legislative Audit Committee okayed an inquiry into the practices of the state parole board, in response to demands from Republican lawmakers who have expressed grab-your-six-shooters alarms over an increase in the number of inmates getting early release these days — up nearly 40 percent from the days of the stingy Owens parole board of a couple years ago. The move has been led by state senator Josh Penry, who says the surge "raises important public-safety concerns."

An audit of parole practices is probably a good idea, but not for the reasons Penry cites. In fact, Penry has no proof that the uptick in parolees poses any kind of threat at all; crime statistics in the state's major cities certainly don't support that theory. And Ritter, a former prosecutor, hasn't exactly demonstrated a willingness to open the prison gates simply to save the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year on corrections, much of it devoted to parole failures.

What the flap really illustrates is the mendacity of parole practices in Colorado, something we've addressed numerous times, including in the 2006 feature "Over and Over Again." As parole officials have unabashedly admitted, many of the "early" releases are inmates who've reached their mandatory release date and are let out a couple of days early because of a lack of bus service from Cañon City on the weekend. It's the same kind of misleading stat as the board's perverse practice of listing hundreds of inmates as having already been granted parole when, in fact, they stay inside the system for months, eating up valuable resources, until their mandatory release date arrives.

This kind of sleight of hand has been going on for years. Perhaps an audit will raise substantive questions about why discretionary parole has practically disappeared since an additional mandatory parole period was imposed in the 1990s, taking away any incentives inmates might have had to clean up their act, and why so many of the mandatory parolees fail to complete parole. Or why we never hear about parolees who've managed to stay clean, like Casey Holden, subject of our blog series "I Shall Be Released."

Now those would be some "public safety concerns" worth exploring. – Alan Prendergast

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