About 115 more inmates per month walked out of prison on early release in 2007 compared with the previous year, a trend stirring up political debate about how much stock to put into rehabilitating prisoners. Though the increase in early exits began in the waning months of Gov. Bill Owens' term, it has grown under Gov. Bill Ritter, who has remade the bulk of the state's parole board since taking office in January of last year. Ritter is pumping more money into drug, alcohol and job-training programs aimed at reducing the likelihood that ex-prisoners will reoffend.
But critics, stunned by the increase in discretionary paroles, say the Democratic governor is pushing a new policy without proper public discussion and risking public safety by gambling that his programs will work. "I find it disturbing, frankly, because it's kind of being done through the back door," said Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger. Ritter, a former Denver district attorney, said he has not dictated any new policy regarding discretionary release and that the board is filled with "people whose judgment I trust with what I consider to be a very serious responsibility." "It's public safety first," he said. "That is and always has been the way I think about criminal justice." Ritter's critics accuse him of appointing a liberal parole board that is flinging open prison doors. But in fairness, the board approved 542 discretionary paroles the month he took office. "Alarming" increase Ritter's first appointment to the board came in March. The appointees include former Denver Police Chief David Michaud as chairman, former Denver County Court Judge Celeste C de Baca, and former victim advocate Rebecca Oakes, whose mother was a murder victim. "They are there because they can exercise judgment," Ritter said. Still, some lawmakers are concerned. Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, said he will pursue a state audit and hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate what he called the "alarming" increase. "Numbers like this just don't appear out of thin air," he said. "It's another below-the-radar change in policy with sweeping ramifications. Going after recidivism is a good thing; opening the prison doors isn't the answer." In Ritter's first 13 months in office, the board has released 6,099 prisoners on discretionary parole — an average of 469 per month. That is up from 4,405 discretionary paroles in former Gov. Bill Owens' last 13 months in office, or 339 per month. The shift is a 38 percent increase. Discretionary releases were rising in the last six months of Owens' tenure, however. Severe budget cuts in 2001-03 caused the Department of Corrections to slash $13 million in programs, said department spokeswoman Alison Morgan. Part of the reason discretionary releases are rising is that programs that help inmates succeed after prison are being restored, she said. Ritter said criticism about the increase is coming from "people who have not spent a day in a criminal courtroom." "It's always easy to act as a demagogue where numbers in the criminal-justice system are concerned," he said. Inmates are typically eligible to apply for discretionary parole after serving half of their sentences. Those convicted of the most violent crimes, including murder and some sexual assaults, are not eligible for discretionary parole. Programs for inmates Soon after Ritter took office, he amended his Republican predecessor's budget request by asking for $8 million for drug-treatment programs and mental-health and parole services. About half of ex-prisoners end up back behind
bars within three years, according to the Department of Corrections.
Ritter's budget request for the next fiscal year would pump $5.9 million into programs aimed at reducing the number of returning inmates.
His budget request includes the lowest increase for prisons in years, instead tagging the money for higher education.
Department of Corrections Director Ari Zavaras said the extra money already is having an effect. Prisons have more money this year to provide medicine to mentally unstable inmates as they walk out the door, Zavaras said.
"Public safety will always be No. 1 as far as we're concerned," he said. "We will only do things that we're confident will not jeopardize public safety."
It takes two of the seven board members to grant discretionary parole for a nonviolent offender and four of the seven for a violent offender.
"It can be a risky business," said Michaud, appointed by Ritter to head the parole board in March. "We would all dread the day that we would release somebody early and they would go out and commit a horrible crime."
Shift to Democrats
Ritter appointed five of the current board members, all Democrats. The board, which had a Republican majority before Ritter took office, now has only one Republican member.
Prison spending in Colorado is a hot-button issue, but Ritter said the parole board should not consider that when weighing an early release.
"Prison overcrowding and prison budgets are not their concern," he said. "Their concern is who should be in prison."
But critics accuse Ritter of putting fiscal issues ahead of public safety.
"Government exists for a few reasons — one of the most important being to keep residents safe," said Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield. "If there are bad guys out there, we have to do what it takes to contain them and protect our homes and families."
Added Owens, a Republican, "I'm hoping that this new parole board is as concerned with public safety as I believe the parole board was that I appointed."
The Denver Post