Criminal Justice, Gold Dome

New study calls Colorado parole reforms into question

­Prison Cell Bed openRecent efforts to reform the parole system in Colorado may not turn out to be as effective as first hoped, according to a new study published in the academic journal “Criminology and Public Policy.”

In particular, the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) began a program in 2015 that would temporarily arrest a parolee when they violated the terms of their parole as opposed to revoking the parole entirely and placing the offender back in prison. In Colorado, these short-term arrests were known as “Sure and Swift” sanctions.

The issue has real-world public safety consequences, especially in light of numerous high-profile incidents involving parolees which were reported on by Complete Colorado and the Denver Post in the winter and spring of this year. In one of those cases, a parolee whose erratic and sometimes violent behavior raised red flags to DOC staff was later charged and found guilty of murdering a homeless man in an alley near downtown Denver. In another case, a parolee who was arrested and released three times under “Sure and Swift” policies was involved in a shootout with Denver Police; the suspect was shot and killed, but not before he shot one officer in the leg.

The new study estimates that parolees who are managed under these “Swift, Certain, and Fair” theories eventually have a revocation rate similar to those parolees managed under traditional methods.

Colorado’s reforms were based largely on a program initiated in Hawaii called “Honest Opportunity Probation with Enforcement,” or HOPE.

The recently concluded academic study of HOPE-styled reforms looked at 1,500 probationers, some of whom were randomly assigned to the reform model management, and others managed under what’s called “Parole as Usual,” or PAU. The study examined parolees in other states, however, not parolees in Colorado.

The authors of the study concluded that HOPE or “Sure and Swift” managements seemed “unlikely to offer better outcomes and lower costs for broad classes of moderate-to-high-risk probationers.”

Complete Colorado asked the DOC the following two questions by email:

  1. Does this change DOC’s faith in the effectiveness of “Sure and Swift” policies?
  2. Has DOC upper management studied the report, and can you summarize thoughts from someone like Director (Rick) Raemisch or Parole Director (Melissa) Roberts?

The response from the DOC did not answer either of the questions in any meaningful way. DOC spokeswoman Laurie Kilpatrick said by email, “The Colorado Department of Corrections’ program, along with several states across the nation utilized the philosophy of the H.O.P.E. program.  The model we implemented was created by Colorado, for Colorado and is one of many tools we use for intermediate sanctions.”

Calvin Johnson
Calvin Johnson

In February of this year, Complete Colorado broke the story about a parolee named Calvin Johnson, who at the time, had been arrested on charges of the first-degree murder of a homeless man in an alley near 10th and Broadway. Adding to the significance was the fact that just weeks before the crime, the Deputy Director of Adult Parole, Alison Morgan, told legislators that Johnson was an example of how well new reforms were working. The set of reforms described by Morgan went beyond just the implementation of “Sure and Swift” arrests.

Johnson was convicted of murder in a jury trial later that summer in which Johnson represented himself.

In March, these pages also broke the story of Geraldino Gonzales, a parolee who had been arrested and released three times under the “Sure and Swift” policies. Gonzales was killed in a shootout with the Denver Police on February 22. DPD Officer Rachel Eid suffered a gunshot wound to the leg in the incident which also included a high-speed chase through the Highlands neighborhood in northwest Denver.

On March 20, The Denver Post published an expose on numerous parolees who had endangered public safety or endangered themselves in some way, possibly as a result of the reforms:

Instead of sending difficult offenders back to prison for breaking rules, parole officers increasingly are told to find alternatives such as counseling, short-term jail stints or other sanctions.

A 2015 law — aimed at reducing the prison population — changed how and when parolees are arrested and sent before the State Parole Board. Then in October, the Department of Corrections added another layer that put the decision about whether to seek parole revocation in the hands of just two people.

Within three months, the changes slashed in half recidivism rates for technical violations. But the reduction has come at a cost, an investigation by The Denver Post has found.

After the numerous parole stories were published earlier this year, Representative Pete Lee (D – Colorado Springs) and former Representative BJ Nikkel (R – Larimer and Weld Counties) published an editorial in the Post defending the reforms, and specifically mentioned HOPE as the foundation for Colorado’s reforms.

As a response to that editorial, a current employee within the DOC authored an anonymous editorial on Complete Colorado. That editorial argued that the implementation of the parole reforms by the DOC management team was more problematic than the parole reforms themselves.

The DOC was also under scrutiny recently after an investigation from KMGH Ch 7 revealed the parole department had misled neighbors about the installation of a new parole office in Aurora.

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