Why Did Colorado Shut Down Its Most Successful Parole Program?

A highly successful parole program that helped inmates serving decades-long sentences transition back to society -- and had the potential to save the Colorado Department of Corrections millions of dollars each year in reduced housing and medical care costs for geriatric prisoners -- has been scuttled without adequate explanation, say supporters of the program.

"First, it was on hold," says Habe Lawson, one of the volunteer mentors for the Long-Term Offender Program, or LTOP -- and, like many of the program's core group, an ex-con himself. "Then it was suspended. Then it was outright thrown away."

See also: Did Some of Colorado's Prison Reforms Die With Tom Clements?

We first reported on the mysterious demise of LTOP a few weeks ago in "After Tom," a cover story examining events surrounding the 2013 murder of prison chief Tom Clements and the impact of his death on the reforms he'd launched. Clements had declared that reducing the DOC's overuse of solitary confinement was one of his top priorities, and his successor, Rick Raemisch, has made dramatic strides in bringing those numbers down. At the same time, some re-entry programs Clements had backed as promising ways to keep parolees from cycling back into prison seem to have been stalled or shelved, and LTOP is Exhibit A.

The innovative program was designed to identify longtime inmates who had demonstrated good behavior and posed little risk to public safety but were ill-prepared to return to a world that had changed radically during their decades behind bars. Candidates went through an elaborate selection process, were prepped for re-entry in a special unit at the Sterling prison, then assigned mentors on the street who had been through similar experiences and were eager to help. (The mentoring program was an exception to the usual "no association" rule that keeps parolees from receiving aid or advice from other parolees.)

"If there ever was a program that was needed, it was LTOP," Lawson says. "Before, there was a void -- you come into prison lost, you're lost when you leave. This was for guys so institutionalized that they were practically vegetables. They had no hope of making it on the outside. But Clements was progressively oriented. He saw the need, and he was a good administrator for this program."

Begun in 2011, LTOP soon drew national media attention, including this detailed account on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. It also generated an impressive track record. Over the past three years, 48 inmates have gone through the program. Only one has gone back to prison to date -- on a technical violation of parole conditions, not a new crime. LTOP's 2 percent recidivism rate is in stunning contrast to that of prison populations as a whole, which hovers between 40 and 60 percent over a three-year period. It's even more remarkable when you consider that the LTOP inmates tend to be the kind of long-timers who have the greatest challenges making the transition to the street.

Most LTOP participants had been convicted of violent crimes, making it extremely difficult for them to find employment. But LTOP mentor Daryl Ziglar says the group has demonstrated the ability to get jobs and keep them. "These are the best, most dependable workers you can have. They show up on time, and they're grateful for the opportunity."

Barney Mosley, one of the first participants to gain release three years ago, credits the arduous selection process -- which, he suggests, helps to weed out those not truly determined to succeed -- and the tremendous support network provided by the mentors. "It's a very well thought-out program," he says. "The recidivism rate is the lowest you'll find anywhere. If they want to stop just warehousing people, they need to look at programs like this."

But a few months ago, the mentors stopped receiving referrals for new candidates. They say they've received no real explanation for why the program was put on hold, then shut down. A DOC spokeswoman told Westword a few weeks ago that LTOP was a pilot program that's going to be incorporated into the DOC's "presumptive parole" process. Raemisch has said that he wants to expand the program but also see it work in closer collaboration with the state parole board. But the group's mentors say that LTOP, while operating out of only one prison, had moved well beyond "pilot program" status -- and the violent convictions of the offenders involved disqualifies them for presumptive parole.

"After the death of Tom Clements, things changed dramatically and strangely," Ziglar says. "So many people were on board with this program, and then things just went south."

"My own personal belief is that this is all political within DOC," says Greg Wells, who was sentenced to life with parole but is now working in the community rather than occupying a prison cell. "For every fifteen of us who come out, at a bare minimum DOC saves a million dollars a year. Why wouldn't you want to keep that going? LTOP is a perfect example of what Mr. Raemisch has been talking about as his top priority, which is not creating any more victims."

For the moment, core volunteers in the program continue to meet regularly and work with the few dozen inmates who've already been released. But they'd also like to see the process resumed for other qualified candidates who've been waiting for a chance to prove they can make it back in the free world, too. Mosley is afraid that the kind of reassessment DOC is doing now will widen the scope of the program and displace its original intent.

"If it isn't broke, don't break it," he says.

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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