Nearly half of Colorado inmates are parole eligible but still behind bars. Some lawmakers hope to change that.

Balancing second chances with public safety, parole board decides if thousands of prisoners are fit for release each year

Former recreation yard at the Alamosa County jail, Dec. 20, 2018. More than 250 people in Colorado jails are awaiting placement in prison. (Photo by Evan Semón)

Roughly 8,700 Colorado inmates — 43 percent of Colorado’s entire 20,200-person prison population — are eligible for parole.

Yet they remain behind bars.

It’s a situation many criminal justice advocates and policymakers argue is inhumane and costly to taxpayers.

Keeping inmates incarcerated past their parole dates also increases prison crowding, a growing concern for lawmakers as the state prison vacancy rate dips below one percent.

So why aren’t more inmates, especially non-violent ones, released on parole? There is no simple answer.

The gatekeepers who determine who is released on parole are the seven members of the Colorado Board of Parole. For these politically appointed members, the calculus for determining who is fit for release is both complicated and risky.

“You want to give people the benefit of the doubt and you want to give people a second chance,” said Brandon Shaffer, a former state senator who served on the parole board from 2013 to 2016. “But you have to weigh the facts and what’s going on with that individual with public safety.”

According to a report by the state Division of Criminal Justice published last April, about 70 percent of the time, the board denies inmates parole when they first appear before the board. Some of these people go on to serve out their entire sentences.

Most often, according to the report, board members deny the first request for parole because the inmate is still considered a risk to the community, either due to the nature of the crime or disciplinary issues during a previous stint on parole or in prison.

An inmate the Department of Corrections has not treated for behavioral, mental health, or substance use disorder while incarcerated also faces tough odds before the parole board. Sometimes a release will be postponed until the inmate receives treatment.

The report also found people are denied parole because they do not have adequate plans for reintegrating into their communities, such as lining up prospective housing or work. The Department of Corrections has caseworkers hired to help inmates come up parole plans.

Christie Donner, executive director for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a politically active advocacy and research group, said the findings in the report demonstrate a lack of communication within the Department of Corrections between prison staff and the parole board.

“There is a substantial breakdown between the left hand and the right hand. That has been a chronic problem for decades. That’s not new. They’re like two islands,” Donner said.

She is also concerned inmates are being denied parole for not receiving treatment. Donner, like other criminal justice advocates, believes people should be getting treatment in the community, not in prison. The Department of Corrections can’t be expected to treat everyone because it doesn’t have the resources to do so, she said.

According to an analysis of the state Department of Corrections’ data, less than 10 percent of inmates with a substance use disorder completed treatment programs this past fiscal year. About 20 percent of those with mental health needs completed programs. About three-quarters of the prison population have a substance use disorder and about 40 percent have mental health needs.

In an emailed response to questions from The Colorado Independent, the Department of Corrections did not specify what it is doing to improve the level of treatment it offers in state prisons and did not mention any additional steps it’s taking to help more inmates find work and housing as part of their parole plans.

The written statement said only that the department prioritizes treatment for inmates based on program availability, bed space and an inmate’s release date. Department of Corrections officials have said that limited bed space is making it more difficult to treat inmates because some prisons that have treatment programs don’t have enough space to accept more inmates. The emailed statement also said the department provides parole plans to the Division of Adult Parole within 120 days of an inmate’s scheduled parole hearing for review.

A spokesperson with the Department of Corrections said the parole board was not available to answer questions for this story.

Pete Lee outside Poor Richards in Colorado Springs. (Photo by John Herrick)

Changes in the works

In order to move more people through the system, lawmakers and criminal justice advocates are considering changes to the law that would automatically release people to parole upon their eligibility date, unless the parole board objects. This process is known as the presumption of parole.

Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs, said he has legislation in the works that would make more non-violent convicts automatically qualified for parole, barring parole board objections.

“This would really clear out a number of people in the prisons and prevent the need to build more prisons,” Lee said.

The law change might also take some of the political pressure off of parole board members who may fear releasing someone dangerous into the community. Most of the board members were serving when the former state prison chief, Tom Clements, was shot and killed by a man released to parole after being held in solitary confinement. The director of Colorado’s parole division at the time, Tim Hand, was fired three months after the murder.

Some lawmakers are cautious about releasing more people to parole, even if they are people convicted of low-level crimes.

“I don’t think it should be a number-based issue,” said Sen. John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley and a former Weld County sheriff. “It should be based on the likelihood of reoffending.”

Currently, about half the people who go on parole end up back in prison for committing new crimes or a technical violation, which includes a failed curfew or drug test. The state’s recidivism rate is about 50 percent, above the national average.

Another plan underway would improve a decision-making algorithm that was launched in 2012 and designed to advise the parole board on whether to grant parole. The updated program will not be ready for about another year, a state official told the Joint Budget Committee last week, in part because the Department of Corrections doesn’t have the money to build out the technology. The department, however, did not ask the legislature for any money for the upgrades in its latest budget request, the official said.

Down to about 100 state prison beds

State lawmakers last year appropriated roughly $900 million for the Department of Corrections, less than the department had requested. That’s because lawmakers wanted to pressure the department into saving money by moving 11 percent of its prisoners into community corrections, also known as halfway houses, or putting them on parole with extra state supervision instead of opening another prison.

It costs state taxpayers about $40,000 per year on average to house an inmate in prison, compared to $20,000 per year to place that same person into community corrections or about $6,000 to release them to parole.

Since the budget was passed, the Department of Corrections has failed to hit the 11 percent target. Currently, about 7.3 percent of prisoners are in community corrections or on intensive-supervision parole. That’s because, in part, while the Department of Corrections can help prepare inmates for these transitional programs, it is ultimately the parole board b and local community corrections boards that decide who is allowed into the programs.

30,000 decisions a year

Lawmakers also hoped that by withholding cash, the Department of Corrections would move 800 inmates per month into parole. That target was reached only once so far this fiscal year, in August, according to the department. The number of discretionary releases by the parole board, however, has inched upward, just not as fast as lawmakers had hoped.

The seven board members make over 30,000 decisions per year, on average. So far this fiscal year, members have released about 700 people per month on average to parole.

Meanwhile, the number of total state inmates has reached a three-year high, about 20,200, according to the last prison population report. This number is expected to continue climbing. Only about 100 of the total 14,505 state prison beds are open in all of Colorado’s prison system, not including beds in halfway houses or in the state’s three privately run prisons. This means there is a vacancy rate of less than one percent, a rate last seen in the summer of 2017.

Even so, confronted with a dwindling number of beds in the state’s prisons system, when Gov. Jared Polis released his state budget to lawmakers on Tuesday, it did not include any money to re-open a high-security prison in Cañon City, as Polis’ predecessor had proposed.

In a letter accompanying his budget, Polis said he is considering a more “holistic” approach to addressing the state’s limited capacity and will release a final corrections budget by the end of the month.

Opening the Cañon City prison would not just be expensive — about $28 million, according to state budget documents  — it would be viewed as a symbolic blow to years of criminal justice reform efforts.

Centennial South Correctional Facility, often referred to as CSP II, which was closed in 2012, could be re-opened as soon as late March, a state official told the Joint Budget Committee last week. The committee approved a $1 million request from the Department of Corrections in September to begin making upgrades, including building a recreational yard. The prison, built for solitary confinement, was shuttered six years ago due to changes in thinking and new policies about punishing people with long-term isolation.

During his final address to the state’s money committee last week, Rick Raemisch, the outgoing executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, said it has been a difficult but rewarding job overseeing the state’s prisons.

“Publicly, when I talk about [the Joint Budget Committee], I say we get beat up pretty good once in a while,” Raemisch said. “But even though that happens, we truly care about doing the right thing and typically, if we can make the right case, we get what we need.”

Sitting behind Raemisch in the front row of the committee room was Dean Williams, the incoming prison chief who previously oversaw Alaska’s prisons. He will soon be in the same seat.

At that time, even fewer prison beds are expected to be available. And the new governor, who has made criminal justice reform a priority, isn’t likely to be thrilled with a plan to put more people behind bars.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Hi my name is Keith Anthony Duran. I am currently on parole and doing extremely well. I was in prison for 14 years and was at CSP for 10 years . I was deemed dangerous and went through hell. But I got a chance and I want to say this. Not all violent offenders are bad some of us made poor choices and got stuck in the system. Give the people up for parole a chance and they may just surprise you. Thank you and have a great day

  2. I currently have a loved one in a Canon City facility. He could be released too, he is not violent. Although the crime he did automatically gets that label. He has not received any programs which they say are mandatory for his release. He tries to keep his spirits up, but he is not getting medical care, and he is not doing so well. I know he would be fine outside, I have known him for almost 30 years. They do need to give people a chance! This was his first offense ever, and I guess I am just frustrated that no one there cares about his release, or well being!

  3. The colorado prison system is flawed horribly. My husband is sitting in a colorado prison for a juvenile case . Not only is he in prison on a juvenile case as a adult tried as a juvenile but when he got out for a short time the parole officer in charge of his case offered no help to him . Didnt even know how long he was on parole for and me being his parole sponsor has yet to ever meet her face to face or talk to her. He was sent back on his first technical and now told he has to do his remainder. Sending people to over crowded prisons is not doing them any help. There is too many inmates to be in any kind of programs due to the waiting list, there is not enough staff to meet the needs of these inmates. They are not given medical they need or the attention to there cases. There case managers dont even meet with them to discuss the next step. The real problem is there are set up for failer long before they ever are given the chance. People make bad decisions and some people never had a chance from the beginning .

  4. My husband is currently in canon city, he sees the parole board in about 2 weeks and I’m so nervous about it because I fear they won’t let him come home. He got sent back for a year a little over a year ago, due to an “escape” from the halfway house. But he’s served 12 on 24 already… and he’s not a violent offender. This will be the first time he sees the parole board- and I’m super excited but scared and incredibly nervous to see what will happen…. his parole plan has been approved- but…. that doesn’t mean much, seeing as they are saying they typically deny people who see the parole board the first time…. that sounds like a load of bullhicky to me. Why deny them their first time around?! Is that really that necessary!? They don’t take into consideration that people in there have families, kids, wives, and loved ones at home who need them and miss them. They just see them as another number on a piece of paper… and I think that that alone is something that they should consider. I mean I understand if they don’t have a safe or good place to go. But- if they already have a life, an established life…. don’t make these guys suffer unnecessarily long. Not every person is the same- but not every person is a cold blooded criminal. Get them some help. Get them into more classes, and get them home.

  5. I’m in fear for my daughter life.She will be going back to prison.Because of a incident that happened the day before her release.Which in my mind they should have not released her but they did and charged her for it 4 months later. So she will inter the same prison where this happen with inmates waiting to get her.But that’s CO for you.

  6. My Brother is currently incarcerated in Colorado. I am laughing at the statement it costs 40,000 a year to house these Men. They have not had Heat all Winter. They have not had Hot water to Shower.
    And have gone without water…when they would not get the part for a pipe that broke. The food is inedible, and what is edible goes mostly to the Guards. The Inmates dig in the garbage for the yogurts the CO’s toss out because they don’t like the flavors…so they can get some Calcium…as they do not get balanced meals.
    We …the Families…if they are lucky to have them send in money so they can go get food to eat at the Commissary…clothes…shoes…gloves… underwear…. thermals .. because they are freezing and at this moment have the A/C on when it is 50 to 60 degrees…and are allowed ONE blanket.
    We pay for their phone and computer time…and everything else….so ..what costs 40,000 Dollars to have my Brother there..
    Let’s not pretend they are getting Health Care…because they are not, unless it’s at the barest of minimums….and that would be overstating it.
    Dental Care… nope…tooth problem…pull it…
    Colorado passed a Slave Labor Law for Prisoners….seems it haven’t taken effect at all Prisons…or was it not for Federal Prisons….some Programs run 24 hours a day …7 days a week…365 days Of the Year….they are always on …for 58 dollars a month….that is .07 cents an hour..

    Most of the Men … especially at the Camps should not be there to begin with. PERIOD…total waste of our time..Court Time…and Camp Time…it usually boils down to a Judge with an ego and in his mind…a point to make.
    So ….

    Yes…let these Men…Father’s…and Husband GO…

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