Editor’s note: The following op-ed was written by a current employee of the Colorado Department of Corrections. The employee’s bona fides are known to Complete Colorado, but the employee also wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliatory action that could harm his/her career.
This letter is in response to the opinion piece authored by Representative Pete Lee and former Representative B.J. Nikkel in The Denver Post on April 5, 2016. As a long time Colorado Department of Corrections employee, I feel the column is flawed in a number of ways that need to be addressed.
Rep. Lee and Ms. Nikkel wrote, “Recently, these [parole] reforms have come under attack by critics who have linked their passage to several widely publicized episodes involving parolees.”
It is not the parole reforms per se that have come “under attack.” Rather, it is largely DOC’s implementation of those reforms–especially Senate Bill 15-124 (which was co-sponsored by Rep. Lee), by the CDOC leadership that is of the most concern. SB 15-124 mandated that parole supervision in Colorado align with evidence-based practices, including limiting when a parole officer can arrest a parolee or file a revocation complaint against them. It also established parole’s Sure and Swift Program.
After following the “widely publicized episodes,” it is clear the criticism in this coverage is directed largely at the CDOC executive leadership.
In this article, Rep. Lee and Ms. Nikkel refer to the Calvin Johnson case and other recently publicized parole cases as “isolated cases.” Contrast this perception with that of the Joint Judiciary Committee in 2013 (of which Rep. Lee was a member) following the murder of CDOC Executive Director Tom Clements, which was called a “catastrophic consequence” of parole system failures. Is this difference in perception due to one victim being a homeless man and the other a Governor’s cabinet member? If anything is a catastrophic consequence, it is the handling of the Johnson case at the highest levels of the parole division.
Mr. Lee and Ms. Nikkel leave out the many problematic issues reported by both Complete Colorado and The Denver Post.
After listening to Deputy Director Alison Morgan’s testimony at the DOC SMART Act hearing in December 2015, it is clear she used Johnson as a showcase of the successes of the aforementioned reforms, Senate Bill 15-124 included.
Morgan specifically testified, “And ultimately [Johnson] chose to, um, actually buy a tent, and he’s living in the alley behind our Lincoln Street parole office, but he’s figuring it out on his own. But it was a tremendous collaboration between parole, mental health, and the community-based organizations. And, and that’s how all of this is working, really very successfully.”
Morgan’s testimony was reported on extensively. But, no one asks why not one member of the legislature, Rep. Lee included, intervened and asked her to explain how a homeless parolee living in a tent is considered “successful.”
Morgan’s questionable testimony was allowed to slide right by without question or concern.
Morgan left out of her testimony the numerous red flags in the Johnson case, including his being arrested as a public safety risk two months prior, his statements he should have killed his victims (who were located in very close proximity to the alley behind the Lincoln parole office) and his outbursts that placed civilians in fear for their safety.
This culminated with CDOC Executive Director Rick Raemish, after Johnson was arrested for murder, informing Governor Hickenlooper’s office in an email that there were no indications Johnson was capable of homicide.
Based on this, what (or who) were really the driving forces that ordered Johnson be released from jail, and not taken in front of the parole board for a revocation hearing?
Johnson was showcased as an offender with significant mental health issues and parole was going to “launch him to be successful.” However, how mentally ill is Calvin Johnson? After all, the judge in his current murder case is allowing him to represent himself as his own attorney. Would any competent judge allow this if the defendant were truly mentally ill?
Rep. Lee wrote, “[Technical] parole revocations have been a key dynamic driving Colorado’s prison population upward for decades, leading to a corresponding jump in taxpayer costs.”
While technically true, this claim needs a closer look. According to DOC’s own Dashboard Measures, the Colorado prison population has dropped 13% in about the last five years (22,680 to 19,731). However, as Mr. Lee correlates prison population and taxpayer costs, the DOC budget has expanded significantly to $868,000,000 in that same period. With the prison population trending down, why then, is the taxpayer cost trending up?
Rep. Lee wrote, “While some parolees commit new crimes, a large proportion of those returned to prison are sent back for “technical” violations, such as a failed drug test or missed appointment with a supervising officer.”
There are several problems with this statement:
The common (mis)conception is a technical violation involves no criminal behavior and is only minor in nature. Finding Colorado’s definition of “technical violation” is not an easy task. However, the meeting minutes of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) and its subcommittees and task forces is very enlightening:
In July 2015 at a CCJJ Re-Entry Task Force meeting, Assistant Director Susan White explained the difference between “technical violation” versus “new crime.”
First, she noted that when comparing technical parole violation rates in Colorado with other states, CDOC defines technical violations differently. She clarified that “New Crimes” are defined as new felonies committed on parole which result in a new CDOC prison sentence within three months of the revocation, while all other felony convictions and misdemeanor crimes of violence fall under “Technical” violations.
Is this what the citizens of Colorado expect from its appointed and other public officials? We are seeing criminal behavior from parolees that is considered at the high levels of government to be merely “technical” in nature. This is deceptive and wrong.
Further, Rep. Lee wrote, “Last year, for example, such technical violations accounted for 37 percent of all people admitted to prison.”
The inference is that 37% of the CDOC inmate population must also be in prison solely for technical violations. According to CDOC’s Inmate Population Profile, the actual percentage of inmates serving time for technical violations is 7% as of 12/31/15, while the percentage of DOC inmates who are parole returns for new crimes is nearly double the technical violators at 13%.
Rep. Lee and Ms. Nikkel wrote, “In 2015…Senate Bill 124 passed both chambers unanimously.”
One of the main outcomes of Senate Bill 124 is the well-intentioned establishment of the Sure and Swift Program based on similar programs in Hawaii and Washington. Colorado’s Sure and Swift program mandates short term jail stays (1-5 days) in lieu of revoking parole for many parole violations and is purported to be a research-based evidence-based practice.
SB 15-124 surely passed unanimously in both chambers based on information provided to the legislative committees by the CDOC. As reported in The Denver Post, “The ‘sure and swift’ response was tested through a pilot program. Once corrections officials declared it successful, the legislature was ready to enact it, [Rep. Lee] said.” During legislative hearings on SB 15-124 in April 2015, both Rep. Lee and Sen. Michael Merrifield (another co-sponsor of the bill) commented on CDOC’s success with the pilot program.
However, in the May 2015 CCJJ Re-Entry Task Force meeting , Executive Director Raemisch commented that the Sure and Swift data was only “very raw” and there were only “early indicators” that Sure and Swift was successful.
As reported, we have seen one multiple-time Sure and Swift participant shoot a Denver Police officer, another who is accused of trafficking a 17-year-old runaway, and yet another ram police cruisers during separate police chases before being captured. These incidents occurred within a matter of months of CDOC’s change in policy involving Sure and Swift.
It is a fair question to ask both the legislature and CDOC what reports and research were presented to the legislators that the Sure and Swift pilot program was indeed successful?
Colorado citizens must understand CDOC’s approach to crime and parole violations. I refer to the CCJJ Re-Entry Task Force minutes from May 13, 2015: “70% of PO’s are retired police officers. It’s hard to expect a shift from ‘Law Enforcement’ to hand-holding.” Hand holding? Really? Not to mention the absurd claim that 70% of parole officers are retired police officers. If a law enforcement background is so detrimental to performing effectively as a parole officer, why was Director Raemisch’s law enforcement background so highly touted by Gov. John Hickenlooper in leading corrections in Colorado? Curiously, Director Raemisch is quoted in the same New York Times piece saying, “I don’t want any new victims. That’s what drives me.”
Lastly Rep. Lee wrote, “We now have less incarceration and less crime.” Less incarceration? Yes. Less crime? That is quite dubious knowing the “technical” parole violator rate actually includes categories of felony and misdemeanor convictions.
And we may want to consider that crime in every Denver neighborhood increased in 2015.
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