Denver officials say they are hopeful they can reach a near-term agreement to keep six privately run halfway houses open into 2020.
As for what could come after that, they still don’t know.
In a shocker last week, the Denver City Council, citing moral grounds, voted to kill contracts with GEO Group and CoreCivic, the nation’s two largest private prison companies. These companies serve more than 500 people combined in halfway houses in Denver.
Denver’s community corrections director, Greg Mauro, was crystal clear in warning the council before its vote that canceling the contracts, which expired July 1, meant that those 500-plus “will be returned back to prison or jail.”
A week later, that scenario is still possible, but perhaps unlikely — hardly the sure thing Mauro said it was.
In fact, officials expect there’s a good chance the city will agree to continue contracting with GEO and CoreCivic in order to keep the six facilities open in the coming months. Even Candi CdeBaca, the District 9 councilwoman who led the effort to sever ties with these companies, said she’d support such a temporary continuation.
The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition has presented the framework for a potential transition plan. CdeBaca and others are already behind it. The plan, per the Coalition, includes:
- “a 6 month “wind-down” contract with GEO that operates two community corrections facilities in Denver”
- “a 12 month “wind-down” contract with CoreCivic that operates four community corrections facilities in Denver”
- “a commitment from the Department of Public Safety, Office of Community Corrections to convene a diverse stakeholder group to engage in deeper planning”
The potential for such a deal is what gives Troy Riggs, director of the city’s Department of Public Safety, hope that hundreds of people transitioning back into society at halfway houses won’t be thrown back behind bars.
“We’re pretty optimistic we can get something for the short term,” Riggs said.
The problem, however, is there’s no plan in place to ensure Denver doesn’t find itself in the same quandary after a potential short-term extension expires. City zoning restricts the creation of any new community re-entry centers. Riggs said that’s one thing that would likely need to change ahead of any short-term contract lapsing next year.
While officials brainstorm, GEO and CoreCivic continue to keep their facilities open, even though their respective contracts with the city expired almost six weeks ago. The city intends to reimburse the companies by using some of the more than $18 million in funds already secured from the state Department of Public Safety.
That money is appropriated annually from that department’s budget to the city, to be used for community corrections. More than half of it was slated to go to GEO and CoreCivic in the next year.
But no one, including the two companies, has been able to state for sure that the city and the affected companies will continue to work together for any defined period of time. There’s no formal agreement, or even a “handshake agreement,” Riggs said.
“Is there anything that’s stopping these facilities from shuttering tomorrow?” asked state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, on Monday during a meeting of the state’s committee on prison population management.
“In a short answer,” said Eric Williams, Riggs’s deputy director, “no.”
If negotiations fall through, and the city has more than 500 residents quickly displaced from re-entry centers, the DOC will have two options, director Dean Williams said: Work “full-tilt” to release as many people as possible through parole or send people back to prison — something Williams called an “unsavory alternative.”
Of the 500-plus halfway house residents now in limbo, some 60% are in DOC custody. The remainder were in many cases sentenced directly to halfway houses by the 2nd Judicial District (Denver County).
At the county level, officials have already suspended new placements into CoreCivic and GEO programs, though they have not requested the courts stop sentencing people to community re-entry centers. This means the waitlist will probably grow substantially the longer this dilemma remains unsolved, Riggs said.
“Even before this vote was taken, we did not have enough capacity,” he added. “I believe we have at least 200 on the waitlist as of today.”
Among the reasons the aftermath of the council vote is so chaotic is that no one expected the council to kill the contracts. Even CdeBaca thought none of her colleagues would join her. DOC Director Williams said he had no idea the contracts were at issue until the day before they came up for renewal.
Riggs is one of many officials now lamenting the surprise element in this decision. Had city leaders started talking about this earlier, he said Monday, they might have avoided the present scramble.
The city will have a chance to test his theory later this year: Denver contracts with BI, Inc. — a wholly-owned subsidiary of GEO — for ankle monitoring, and that contract expires in December.
The council’s vote last week indicates that the BI contract is likely dead come December, which gives the city some four months to figure out its replacement plan moving forward.