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.