Parole-eligible inmates would be released under new bill — to boost rehabilitation and ease crowding

A key feature of the bill would make it harder to deny certain inmates parole

Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center. (Photo by John Herrick)

With thousands of parole-eligible inmates behind bars in a state prison system that’s filled to capacity, lawmakers are pushing criminal justice reforms aimed at transitioning more of them back into society.  

On Friday, with little fanfare, as lawmakers left the Capitol for a three-day weekend, senators introduced a bill that aims to both release more inmates on parole and provide them with more support services so they’re less likely to return to prison.

A key feature of the bill would make it more difficult to deny parole to certain inmates. Inmates considered to be a low risk to society and who have an approved parole plan would be denied parole only if a majority the seven-member Colorado Board of Parole objected. Another provision creates a system of communication designed to ensure more inmates have a parole plan. These technical changes to the law could expedite the release of hundreds of parole-eligible inmates. 

Building on legislation passed last session, the bill would require the Department of Corrections to recommend for release a list of non-violent inmates with an approved parole plan to the parole board each month the prison capacity reaches 97 percent. 

Another change would prevent people who violate certain conditions of parole, such as a failed drug test or a missed appointment, from being sent back to prison. Currently, about a quarter of new admissions to prison are for technical parole violations, according to the most recent state data.

The bill would also expand re-entry services to more inmates, such as help finding a job or housing, in an effort to drive down the state’s relatively high recidivism rate of about 50 percent.

About 8,700 inmates are eligible for parole but currently behind bars. Reasons for the backlog vary, but it’s common for inmates to be denied parole because they don’t have employment or housing lined up. Some still need treatment for mental health issues or substance-use disorders, including an addiction to opioids. That lack of treatment, too, is a common reason the parole board denies release.

Sen. Julie Gonzales, a first-year Democratic legislator who worked for six years as a paralegal for the immigration law firm of Hans Meyer, is sponsoring the bill. She said the goal of the legislation is to move more people from prison and into the community where rehabilitation is less costly and more effective. 

“So the more thoughtfully we transition someone out into parole, with community options for that transition process, the more likely they will be not to re-offend,” Gonzales said.

The bill comes amid years of growing frustration among lawmakers over a swelling Department of Corrections budget — which could increase another 9 percent to $971 million next year — and increasing pressure to reopen a shuttered high-security prison in Cañon City to house a projected overflow in the prison population.

The state’s prisons are over 99 percent full, with 127 beds left in the entire system, according to the latest prison population report. That, combined with a 19 percent job vacancy rate for correctional officers, is making working conditions in prisons dangerous, state officials say.

Lawmakers passed measures last year aimed at requiring the Department of Corrections to release more inmates. But the changes have done little so far to ease the prison population. Monthly release targets set for the parole board have been achieved only once. About a third of the inmates the Department of Corrections recommended for release near their mandatory release date did not have adequate parole plans, according to state documents.

Lawmakers Thursday voiced frustration over the DOC’s failure to reach these targets, voting against giving the department money to upgrade Centennial South in Cañon City. The vote is a message to the new administration that Democrats and Republicans alike are not interested in simply warehousing more prisoners in Colorado.

“We need to get the reform measures passed first. I am not going to write a blank check to the Department of Corrections,” Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver, told The Colorado Independent. Herod is also a sponsor on the bill.

Adding to their frustration is that the DOC this summer, with approval from the Joint Budget Committee, already spent about $1 million to retrofit Centennial South despite a legal requirement that lawmakers must approve any plans to house state inmates there. The $200-million facility was built for solitary confinement but closed in 2012 due to a policy change prohibiting the use of long term isolation. Upgrades, including the construction of a recreation yard, have been made to house general population inmates. 

Some lawmakers said they feel like this is an attempt to tie their hands. Even so, they generally agree with the Polis administration the prison should be reopened as a backstop in the case of an emergency. In the long term, lawmakers and the administration also agree that the prison could be used to expand treatment capacity for inmates and close private prisons.

The proposals for releasing more parole-eligible inmates are not without challenges. The state will need to find housing for these inmates so they are not released homeless, which can increase their risk of recidivism.

“It’s hard work,” said Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs. “After all, I’m not in the businesses of telling apartment owners that they have to rent to anyone.”

He said the state will also have to invest in more parole board members, who decide about 30,000 cases per year. This heavy caseload, he said, may cause the board members to keep people behind bars out of concern for public safety.

The bill was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. A hearing is yet to be scheduled.

This story was updated at 11 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16. 

8 COMMENTS

  1. I appreciated your article about easing prison overcrowding and the hope that we can close private prisons.
    In this country we are all about revenge and locking people up and throwing away the key.
    This attitude has resulted in nothing but repeat offenders and an more money going down the drain.

    It is time for lawmakers to look at some of the penalties which are handed down, and the fines imposed with a guilty plea. In cases like petty theft, how hard are we looking at the reason for it? As for drunk driving where no person or property is damaged, we, in my opinion, are over the top in fines and penalties. I have personal information about some cases and wonder how we really plan to get blood out of a turnip. How hard are the institutions really working for their clients? There are a great many parts of our criminal justice system that need to be looked into.

  2. Yes our criminal justice system in our penal system is in a shambles. An overhaul is desperately needed. Punishment only it’s not the answer. Locking them up and throwing away the key is a part of the cause for are severe mass incarceration. What happened to Rehabilitation and second chances. What happened to redemption and forgiveness? Punishment and revenge has absolutely nothing to do with true Justice.

  3. How many times must we punish a person? What is the going rate of a person’s freedom each day incarcerated? I’m so disappointed in the adult parole system and Cheyenne MT. Re entry center management system in corresponding with inmate and support sponsors. Can’t get answers or guidance by these facities. No direction, pointless, and wasting money.

  4. My husband is incarcerated at CCCF. (Non Violent Charge)He had 1st.parole hearing the end of March& was granted parole but not until the end of July. He completed his parole plan in Feb. A parole officer called me about to weeks after hearing, and said it would be about a week to verify. I’ve called several times, and yet to know if plan was approved. His release eligibility date is 04/30/19. So why July? I would think ASAP with the overcrowding.

  5. My man bought a stolen car from a car dealer and was sentenced for stealing a car because they the dealer was not found..so he was sentenced 6years and he was a first time offender he’s supposed to be released next year I’m hoping for him to to be released earlier than that..

  6. This bill doesn’t mean a god damn thing. I have served a total of 7 non-consecutive years in CDOC over a span of 10 years. Starting in 1999. During that time I watched bill after bill after bill get sponsored and passed specifically for prison reform to lighten or remedy the “over-crowding” prison population in Colorado. And throughout that time, never did I see, for myself, inside the system, or on official Colorado gov. computated prison population reports a decline less than 94.7% of of total compassity. The reason is this… real truth, legislators don’t really want to remedy the so called over-crowding problem in Colorado prisons. See if the Colorado gov. reports the over-crowding to the federal government US, as part reasoning for funding on annual fiscal request…Well Colorado’s government will , has been, and still does get a substantial amount of more money on top of the regular funding amount. Not surprising; only a small amount of those specific funds go to where they’re supposed to. Colorado’s loop-hole… the 7 member parole board hearings officer. It’s a majority vote, and the members can sway a vote in any direction to combat even the best intentioned bill. In short the state’s that don’t have a prison over-crowding population problem are the ones that use randomly selected members of their own civic community. Kind of like jury duty in a sense. This is all public info. And it’s free to examine, copy, etc… what evs. Just dont go on not knowing. It’s a real shi**ty thing to do for a small group of people to steadily keep people locked in cages waaaaay longer than they should be just for their own gain.

    • To fix a couple things in my ranting reply. The state’s that don’t have a prison over-crowding problem, are the ones that use randomly selected members of their own civic community as parole hearings officers. Kind of a continuation of a jury of ones peers. They were good enough to judge they’ll be as such to decide if a sufficient amount of time has been served on their own delved sentence.

  7. I am an x convict and I’ve been out of prison for 18 yrs and also clean for these 18 years. Yes I have lived a life of chaos in my past days and I always hear that the parole board is will not give a person parole due to the safety of the public. As many officers who have killed innocent people and not do a day in prison there worried about public safety hmmm. We always want to continue to convict a person who has been doing there time, more time that they should have done and even after they revive there time from the judge they go to prison and still have to endure the unfairness from the staff who work in the prisons. When we fail to realize that a lot of us have done wrong there’s not a soul on earth who haven’t did wrong. Some of us got caught and received time for our wrong doings. One thing I will say is slot of us get out and we make a 360 degree change in our lives and we get jobs, own businesses and take care of our family’s . I know because I am doing so. It’s about giving chances, sending people the right places like rehab, halfway houses, helping them get housing and things like that. The cold thing is sometimes a person will have a place to parole to be the parole offices would rather see them homeless on the streets instead of them living under a roof being cared and loved for. And will not give them money to travel no job leads just a straight shot to the shelter now you tell me how does this help any one? Especially when someone has done a lot of years in prison. And then they expect for this parolee to report to there parole officer twice a week while being homeless. It’s like sending someone to a shelter is an easy way out for parole officers like they
    Want to see people fail instead of really being there to help the person on their caseload. When in fact if it weren’t for us getting out on parole what job would they have? It’s a two way street but they don’t look at it like that. I’m grateful for the parole officer I had 18 yrs ago because she talked to me and I was honest with her and she is a part of saving my life but she was willing to help me help myself so that I could make a difference in the lifestyle I was living and I thank god for her. believe me I wasn’t no walk in the park. I believe the only way the system will get the real help they need is to listen to the parolees who get out and actually help them help themselves.i mean we are the ones who live in these half way houses? Programs, shelters etc like they say in order to catch a thief you have to think like one and there’s nothing like one thief catching another.

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