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.
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.