Guest Commentary: Colorado making progress on parole reform
by Rep. Pete Lee and Former Rep. B.J. Nikkel
from the Denver Post
There is no greater priority for government than keeping its citizens safe. Ensuring that our criminal justice system produces the best possible outcomes requires not just vigilance but also the flexibility to adjust our approach as new evidence emerges.
Fortunately, Colorado’s leaders understand this. Over the past two years they have enacted a series of smart, comprehensive reforms to improve public safety by strengthening the state’s parole system.
Recently, these reforms have come under attack by critics who have linked their passage to several widely publicized episodes involving parolees. The most serious case involved Calvin Johnson, a Denver parolee who has been charged with the murder of a homeless man, Teodoro Leon III, on New Year’s Day.
Such events are unquestionably tragic, and Gov. John Hickenlooper has responded appropriately by asking the Department of Corrections to review its policies and recommend any needed adjustments.
But what’s missing from this discussion is one crucial fact: despite these isolated cases, the data clearly show Colorado’s parole system is on the right track toward making communities safer for all.
Let us share some background on how our state got to this point.
For years Colorado has struggled with a high failure rate among its parolees. What that means is a large percentage of people on parole were unsuccessful, typically because they broke the rules governing their release and landed back in prison. These parole revocations have been a key dynamic driving Colorado’s prison population upward for decades, leading to a corresponding jump in taxpayer costs.
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. Last year, for example, such technical violators accounted for 37 percent of all people admitted to prison.
Overall, Colorado’s recidivism rate has been disappointingly high for far too long, with almost half of all former offenders returning to prison within three years of their release.
As such numbers indicate, a change was needed — and a change occurred, beginning soon after the murder of Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements in March 2013.
The first phase of reform came with 2014’s House Bill 1355, which passed with strong bipartisan support in the Senate (32-3) and House (47-15) and was based on input from the National Institute of Corrections. The legislation fortified the parole system through staff increases, enhanced training, equipment upgrades and support for community-based services and treatment programs proven to help parolees succeed upon release.
In 2015, a second reform bill, Senate Bill 124, passed both chambers unanimously. This legislation was based on the latest science and best practices about what works to change criminal behavior and on reforms made in other states that produced very positive results.
Specifically, the bill was anchored in studies showing that swift, certain and proportional sanctions, combined with treatment addressing drug and alcohol dependency and other criminal risk factors, are most effective in reducing parolee failures — and thereby enhancing public safety and cutting taxpayer costs. That formula has been most powerfully demonstrated in Hawaii, where a gold-standard evaluation of the H.O.P.E program found significant declines in recidivism by using short commitments to jail rather than revocation to prison as the response to probationers’ technical violations.
Courts in other states, including Alaska, Arkansas, Nevada and Oregon, have since adopted the model, and research strongly supports the effectiveness of its core principles.
So what have these two waves of parole reform brought Colorado thus far? The results are encouraging. Most importantly, the state is making steady progress on its problem of parolee failure. During the last fiscal year, the number of parolees returned to prison on a technical violation dropped 11 percent, while readmissions for a new felony conviction declined by 5 percent.
So far, the picture looks even brighter for this fiscal year, which ends July 1. The number of people re-incarcerated for a technical parole violation is down 18 percent to date, while readmissions for a new felony conviction have dropped 8 percent.
Is there room for improvement? No doubt — and we trust that the governor’s team will identify weaknesses in the system and remedy them as needed. That is how it should be.
But the bottom line is this: While there will always be isolated tragedies that grab headlines, Colorado was in dire need of parole system reform, and our state leaders did the right thing for public safety by adopting it.
After decades of prison growth, we now have less incarceration and less crime. That’s exactly the kind of win-win we need to see more of in public policy, and something all Coloradans should celebrate.
Republican B.J. Nikkel is a former Colorado state representative. Rep. Pete Lee, a Democrat, represents District 18 in the state House.