The Denver Post
Colorado has reduced its prison population, but at what cost to public safety?
A push to reduce recidivism rates among Colorado parolees is leaving dangerous ex-cons on the streets, including a man now accused of murder, another who shot a Denver police officer and another man accused of pimping a teen runaway.
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.
Parole officers describe a high hurdle created by their bosses that has left them feeling frustrated and powerless to protect the public.
In some cases, “There’s only one way to stop the madness, and that’s put them in jail,” one parole officer said. “We effectively let a guy get killed.”
He and five other parole officers spoke to The Denver Post on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by corrections department officials.
The officers specifically pointed to the changes that put state parole director Melissa Roberts and deputy director Alison Morgan at the center of the Department of Corrections’ drive to reduce recidivism rates. Roberts and Morgan decide when a parolee faces a revocation hearing before the State Parole Board and when they will be allowed to remain free, according to an internal memo obtained by The Post. Previously, parole officers could make those decisions on their own.
“NO parolee goes in front of the parole board for a revocation hearing unless the case has been reviewed and approved by Alison Morgan or Melissa Roberts,” the memo says.
The parole officers said they felt compelled to bring attention to the changes after parolee Calvin Johnson, a 44-year-old homeless man, was charged with murder in a New Year’s Day stabbing death of another homeless man, Teodoro Leon III.
Johnson’s parole officers repeatedly warned that he was dangerous, including an October notation in his records that said, “It is this supervisor’s opinion that offender is currently a risk to public safety and to the staff that come in contact with him.”
On Oct. 13, Johnson was arrested, and his parole officer asked to take him before the parole board. But Johnson was released from jail Oct. 26. The corrections department redacted all entries between those dates in a copy of his parole record given to The Post.
Roberts and Morgan were involved in Johnson’s case, including after a Dec. 2 outburst at a drug testing facility where Johnson threatened workers with physical and sexual violence, according to Johnson’s parole records.
On Dec. 3, Johnson’s parole officer received an e-mail from his manager passing along a message from Morgan that said, “We need to do our very best to continue working with him.”
The Post sought comment from Morgan, but Roberts answered questions on her behalf.
While Johnson had a history of being belligerent and verbally aggressive, he had not physically assaulted anyone, she said.
Roberts said she looked at the totality of his circumstances and decided it would be best to partner with community outreach agencies and to continue working with him.
“A risk to public safety”
Critics of the new policy say parole officers, who best know which ex-cons are the most dangerous, have lost the ability to take people off the streets before they hurt someone else or themselves.
“If you’ve got a guy going off the rails, not being able to arrest him is definitely a drawback,” said Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey. “The idea that you have to wait until one of these people commits a crime or injures somebody is bad public policy and is clearly a risk to public safety.”
Morrissey said Johnson’s behavior leading up to the New Year’s Day stabbing was a clear sign that he was dangerous.
Johnson was living in a tent in an alley outside the parole office on Lincoln Street in Denver.
Already, Johnson had been kicked out of a rehabilitation program for being disruptive, had thrown a tantrum inside a local business and had been arrested once for parole violations, according to his records.
“Those are usually signs it’s time to straighten the guy out or he’s going off the rails,” Morrissey said.
Still, on Dec. 9, Johnson was taken off intensive supervision — just a week after his outburst at the drug testing office.
And five days after that, Morgan used Johnson as a success story for her division when speaking to the legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee.
“It was a tremendous collaboration between parole and mental health and the community-based organizations,” Morgan told the panel. “And that’s how all of this is working, really very successfully.”
On Dec. 29, an entry in Johnson’s records noted a threatening voicemail he had left for a community re-entry specialist. In it, Johnson said “not to judge him on what’s going to happen in the next week, weeks or months because things are going to get nasty,” according to a portion of his parole record. The corrections department redacted that entry in Johnson’s records, but The Post obtained it from another source.
Within three days, Leon was dead.
“Sure and swift”
Nationally, states are trying to reduce prison populations, and cutting recidivism rates is one way to lower the numbers.
Inmates can be sent back to prison for a number of reasons, including committing new crimes or technical violations, which could include failed drug or alcohol tests, missed therapy sessions, arrests or curfew violations.
Rather than send people to the parole board to face revocation for technical violations, parole officers are asked to find alternative sanctions such as counseling drug rehab or shortening curfews.
One option created by state law in 2015 allows parole officers to jail clients for a few days for technical violations. The jail stays — called “sure and swift” — are supposed to remind parolees of what they stand to lose should they go back to prison.
State Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs and a bill sponsor, said people were filling the state’s prisons for technical violations. The “sure and swift” response was tested through a pilot program. Once corrections officials declared it successful, the legislature was ready to enact it, he said.
Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs and another bill sponsor, said parole officers supported the bill when it was passed and he has not heard complaints about the changes it brought.
Another goal was to change the parole officer culture, Lee said.
“In the past, parole officers were more cop-oriented,” he said.
To help solve the country’s mass incarceration problem, parole officers need to be more attuned to fixing underlying problems among their clients, Lee said.
One parole officer told The Post that he doesn’t advocate sending everyone back to prison for missteps. Watching a man overcome his past and leading a decent life is the most fulfilling part of the job, the officer said.
Colorado corrections officials say the state has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country, and they are trying to reduce those numbers.
Three months after the October changes, the number of technical parole revocations plummeted 51 percent to 145 in December from 297 in October. The prior three years, December technical parole violations exceeded 300.
Colorado’s parole revocation numbers have varied wildly over the years, often driven by shifts in policy rather than parolee behavior.
In March 2013, the number returning to prison spiked 45 percent afterparolee Evan Ebel killed Nathan Leon, a Commerce City father of three, and assassinated then-corrections department executive director Tom Clements.
That year, the number of parolees yanked back to prison on technical violations climbed to 397 in October from 273 in March.
Rick Raemisch — executive director of the state Department of Corrections, which oversees parole — said his agency is trying new programs to help people change. Past practices were not successful, and Colorado is following national trends.
“I don’t think the term would be more tolerance as much as it would be more tools,” Raemisch said. “We’re trying to find things that are working versus what hasn’t been working.”
A man who violates parole by using drugs isn’t going to overcome an addiction by going back to prison for 180 days on a technical parole violation, he said.
“Are we curing the addiction? And the answer is, in all probability under those circumstances, no,” he said. “And so it gets to the point of we’ve been watching what really hasn’t been working, so what is it that we can try to do that is working?
“A number of these things that we are doing is proven. And I know people are tired of the term ‘evidence-based practices,’ but you know that’s what we’re looking at.”
Nationally, these corrections reforms are driven by crowded prisons, said Sarah Manchak, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice.
“There’s been a lot of pressure in many states to keep those populations down,” Manchak said.
The idea behind reforms is for parole officers to find ways to change behavior when offenders start slipping.
“It’s really unfortunate to hear what happened in Denver,” Manchak said. “Unfortunately, those cases get sensationalized so everyone thinks all of these parolees are going to run out and be violent and commit crimes.”
The “sure and swift” model is gaining traction, but Manchak has been critical. She has studied a similar program Hawaii uses for people on probation.
“I would caution against buying into this as a panacea. Much more has to be done to change offender behavior than simply locking them up,” she said. “And, if we are going to try to keep offenders in the community to avoid prison overcrowding, it is our responsibility to do more.”
Critics of Colorado’s parole changes say the trend has swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction.
“Many of these people are really bad people,” said Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner. “They really are dangerous folks.
“I would love to see the parole officers on the street have a lot more say on when somebody goes back to prison. Parole officers know their clients. They know who’s dangerous.”
There have been numerous cases of parolees committing serious crimes after receiving second chances for violations.
On Feb. 22, parolee Gerardino Cayetano Gonzalez, 33, shot and wounded Denver police Officer Rachel Eid. He was killed in the shootout; Eid was shot in the lower leg and was treated at a hospital and released that night.
Gonzalez, a known gang member, had been sent to jail three times under the “sure and swift” policy between Nov. 30 and Feb. 9 for violations such as failed drug tests, curfew violations and missed treatment sessions, according to his chronological records. The corrections department denied The Post’s requests for his records, but the newspaper obtained them through another source.
Gonzalez was released from his third “sure and swift” sentence Feb. 16, and his parole officer conducted a “motivational interview” where Gonzalez acknowledged that his drug use could lead to other law violations, his records showed.
The police officer’s injury and the suspect’s death could have been avoided if warning signs had not been ignored, Morrissey said.
“They need to be taken back — and not for one day or five days — but back to the penitentiary,” he said. “And that needs to be sure and swift.”
In another case, Carlos Middlebrooks, 35, was charged with 14 crimes all connected to accusations that he was serving as a 17-year-old runaway girl’s pimp.
In the months leading up to his arrest, Middlebrooks failed 17 drug tests after drinking alcohol and using marijuana and cocaine and missed seven mandatory appointments, according to his parole records.
He was jailed twice under the “sure and swift” policy.
A November short-term jail stay was canceled because of a new job and the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with his children for the first time in three years, parole records showed. Middlebrooks was given a verbal reprimand.
He was due for a third trip to jail when Colorado Springs police caught up with him.
The Denver Post also found other troubling cases, including three where men died of overdoses after repeatedly failing drug tests.
In another, a Pueblo felon with a long history of parole violations served four “sure and swift” stints before absconding. In February, he rammed three police cars during chases before being captured.
An Aurora gang member with a manslaughter conviction in Colorado Springs was caught with a weapon in December, but Morgan and Roberts told his parole officer they would not seek revocation. He eventually was sent back to prison for 180 days after absconding in February.
Roberts said it is not unusual for top division supervisors, such as herself, to wade into difficult cases.
“We really wanted to formalize that process for a variety of reasons,” she said. “My observations when I first got here was there may not be the most consistent decisions made across the state, which is difficult.”
Roberts said she gets involved so she can learn what is happening in the field and spend more time with management staff.
“The literature will show that we need to respond to violations in a thoughtful, strategic, evidence-based way, which is, you respond to the next level of violation appropriately,” Roberts said.
She recognizes that some parole officers resent the changes, but she said many embrace them. The field is changing, and it is time for Colorado to catch up, she said.
“Corrections has ebbed and flowed over the years from most staffers being told to be tough on crime, tough on the drug war, all that,” she said. “Now it is shifting back because now evidence points to the fact that tail ’em, nail ’em and jail ’em doesn’t make anybody better. It doesn’t reduce recidivism, and that is our main goal because that is what is going to make Colorado safer.”
But others aren’t so sure the new practices are achieving that goal.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said parolees need accountability.
Alcohol and drugs drive a behavior, including leading to other crimes. Those who violate the rules for drug use must be held accountable, he said.
“If you don’t keep them in check, you’re setting them up for failure,” Smith said.
Parole officers are whispering to the sheriff that they “have no teeth any more,” Smith said.
The emphasis is on emptying prisons and saving money, Smith said.
“The drive is, number one, to declare success when people don’t go back,” he said. “But the number one should be public safety.
“It comes down to community safety. That needs to be the goal. Let’s be wise on what we’re doing to save dollars. In the end, if it saves money but doesn’t protect the public, it’s a failure.”
Noelle Phillips: 303-954-1661, email@example.com or @Noelle_Phillips
How Parole Gets Revoked
• The parole officer arrests the parolee for violations, which could be anything from a failed drug test to a missed curfew to leaving the state or committing a new crime.
• The parole officer meets with supervisors including parole director Melissa Roberts or assistant director Alison Morgan.
• They decide how to address the violation. Options included sending the parolee to a community program, changing curfew, using electronic monitoring, keeping the parolee in jail for up to five days or recommending revocation to the Colorado Parole Board.