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Tom Clements, new Colorado prison chief: Can he bust out of the state's revolving door?

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This week, the Colorado Senate unanimously confirmed the appointment of Tom Clements as Department of Corrections executive director. It's not one of the most glamorous posts in Governor John Hickenlooper's cabinet, certainly, but it's one of the most crucial if the state is going to climb out of its fiscal sinkhole. The DOC's $700 million annual budget is ten times what it was in 1985 -- and the true elephant in the room when it comes to figuring out ways to cut state spending.

Clements succeeds Ari Zavaras, the former Denver police chief who headed prison operations in a sturdy but not particularly innovative manner under several governors. Although he vowed to battle for efficiency as well as public safety, Zavaras seemed to make few inroads into the established build-baby-build culture within the agency. On his watch, the state constructed its second supermax prison, at a cost of $200 million, while the prison population grew at a rate twice the national average, thanks largely to sentencing legislation well beyond his control.

The rate of growth in the DOC has slowed considerably in the past two years. But one of the most glaring long-term problems with Colorado's prison system is still with us: the failure rate of parole remains staggeringly high. Roughly a third of the inmates entering the state's prisons each year are actually parolees being sent back to finish an old sentence after failing miserably to complete their mandatory parole time.

And that's an area Clements is particularly qualified to address. A 31-year veteran of the corrections system in Missouri, he started out as a parole officer in St. Louis and has great familiarity with what are now known in the business as "re-entry issues." Years ago, as a top official overseeing Missouri's 30,500 offenders, he supported an effort to shift in that state from hard-line, lock-em-up management to a greater emphasis on work, substance abuse treatment, and incentive programs designed to prepare inmates for life back in society. The approach was known as "Parallel Universe" -- the premise being that prison shouldn't be about totally controlling felons (and allowing them to sit around on their asses), but should more closely resemble a real-world regimen of work, earned awards and accountability.

The program may have been more proposal than action; there doesn't appear to be any kind of empirical study available regarding the degree of its implementation or its results. But Clements is now in a position to bring such ideas to wider circulation in Colorado's cells, while bringing a fresh perspective to a prison system that badly needs one.

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