It is a system undergoing significant change in recent years, one that is having to deal with more paroled prisoners at the same time state officials are pushing for fewer parole revocations for technical infractions.
Little is publicly known about Ebel's time on parole from Jan. 28 until his shootout with authorities on March 21, when he was fatally wounded.But during that time, he killed pizza delivery driver Nathan Leon and shot dead Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements at his home, law enforcement officials now believe.
It was at least the second time in March that a recent parolee allegedly killed someone: A Jefferson County grand jury has indicted 52-year-old parolee Warren Watson in the robbery, sexual assault and strangulation of Lakewood attorney Claudia Miller. Watson had been on parole two weeks.
Internal corrections documents show the parole system charged with monitoring people such as Ebel and Watson was struggling with higher caseloads. Documents also say parole officers have been confused by new restrictions on their parole revocation powers.
State officials and legislators believe new services and an increased reliance on halfway-house beds will help those on parole adjust to life out on the streets.
Tim Hand, Colorado's director of parole, relayed through corrections spokeswoman Alison Morgan that he would not be available to comment on those issues until this week.
But some of those close to the parole system say conditions had been ripe for a violent parolee to go off the rails.
"From the parole officers working the streets with the responsibility of keeping track of those on parole, I'm hearing they are letting them out of prison like crazy now, and the parole officers have caseloads that aren't manageable," said David Michaud, who retired as chairman of the parole board in 2010.
The number of individuals on parole in Colorado in 2011 was 8,181. Due in part to efforts by state officials to drive down parole revocations and to grant parole sooner to prisoners who participate in educational programs, state officials project their numbers will swell to 10,986 by 2014 — a 34 percent increase in three years.
"It's a lot like a bubble, and if you squeeze it at the prison end and release more, that bubble is going to balloon at the parole level," Michaud said. "If you're going to do that, you have to be prepared at the parole level to deal with your caseloads." Colorado Department of Corrections officials this year submitted documents to legislative leaders showing that the average caseloads for parole officers are rising.
The typical parole officer supervising lower-risk parolees is overseeing nearly 69 cases at a time now, the documents show.
Parole officers in 2001 each averaged 60 cases in that category. A parole officer engaging in intensive supervision of higher-risk cases now has nearly 23 cases to monitor. In 2001, parole officers each averaged 20 cases in that category. "These supervision ratios have been lower in the past, and the department states it would like to re-establish the historical ratio," according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Council given to legislators earlier this month. That analysis said the state corrections department's funding request would not trim the higher caseload rates.
The American Probation and Parole Association recommends a case to staff ratio of no higher than 20 to 1 for intensive parole supervision and no more than 50 to 1 for moderate- to high-risk parole supervision.
Ebel was released from prison under a mandatory parole, which means the parole board could not continue to keep him in prison since his prison term for assault and other charges had come to an end. Most parole releases are mandatory, with about 20 percent of parolees being released early from prison at the discretion of the parole boards. About 65 percent of those released on mandatory parole end up back in prison within three years, statistics show.
Parolees come out of prison with $100 in what corrections officials call gate money, an amount that has not increased since the 1970s. Often their bus lets them off at 20th and Arapahoe streets in Denver. If they turn right, they hit the bars on Larimer Street. If they turn left, they're at the Holy Ghost Church, where there's often an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting underway. "That one direction they turn can determine whether they will be successful or not out on parole," Michaud said. "What they need are effective treatment programs that work."
He said such programs were lacking during his time on the parole board. Michaud recalled that at the time he retired from the board, the most effective treatment program with the highest rate of success was offered in only three of the 29 prisons in the state. He said he doubts the gap in services has closed.
Parole officers also are facing new restrictions on their parole revocation powers. The state now requires them to use an assessment tool that grades the risk level of parolees before moving to revoke their parole and send them to prison for new violations. The idea is to create consistency on such decisions and to keep low-risk offenders from returning to prison when less-severe sanctions could bring them into compliance with parole conditions.
But the implementation of the assessment tool hasn't always gone smoothly, according to documents.
"Some staff expressed feeling overwhelmed with new tasks while still meeting existing responsibilities," a December 2011 report from the Colorado Department of Corrections' Office of Planning and Analysis found when reviewing how parole officers were reacting to the new tool.
That report also found "some confusion about priorities" and questions about whether participating in new projects "was more important than meeting contact standards" with parolees.
The outside world
After nearly eight years in prison, Ebel was released on intensive supervision parole in January with conditions barring him from frequenting bars, driving, contacting victims, drinking alcohol or consorting with gang members. He also had to comply with therapeutic conditions, which corrections officials will not reveal because of privacy laws. Ebel was released straight from Sterling Correctional Facility's administrative segregation to the outside world for three years of parole supervision. Ironically, Clements had spent his two years as head of corrections in Colorado working to reform and limit administrative segregation, commonly known as solitary confinement.
The riskiest type of release for a prisoner is to go from the isolation of administrative segregation to the jarring reality of life outside prison, said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to incarceration.
"When someone is going from admin seg to the streets, there is very little they can do to plan," Donner said. "They just land on the moon when they come out. It's got to be the least desirable transition path."
Ebel's history should have flagged him for special treatment and services upon his release, Donner said.
"When he was released on parole, did his parole officer do anything with his mental health?" Donner asked. "Was there any effort on the part of his parole officer to address the fact that this man came out of admin seg and spent years and years and years in admin seg and had a history of mental health problems and a history of violence within the prison, a history of banging his head against the walls and smearing his feces on the wall? What happened in that transition?"
Crime rates in Colorado have plunged in the past four years by more than 30 percent, but some still question whether the increase in those on parole is jeopardizing public safety. About a year ago, Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner and other law-enforcement officials wrote Gov. John Hickenlooper saying they were concerned about what they perceived as a surge in parolees in their part of the state. Garner recalled that Clements and one of his assistants came to talk to him to try to reassure him. "They didn't think the numbers were as drastic as we thought they were," Garner recalled.
"I definitely formed the opinion that Mr. Clements was a good, caring man," Garner said last week. "What I have found incredibly sad and ironic is that he told me my concerns about parolees were exaggerated, and I have since his killing thought how incredibly ironic and sad it is that he was then killed by a parolee."
On March 20, the day after Clements was killed, the parole board issued an arrest warrant for Ebel. Corrections officials have not released the details behind the warrant or said whether it was for some unspecified violation of his parole conditions or on suspicions he was involved in Clements' killing.
The parole system that inherited Ebel was the subject of a critical state audit just over four years ago that found parole officials struggling with outdated equipment and in need of modernization.
At that time, the parole board members charged with deciding whether to release a prisoner didn't even have laptop computers, the audit found. They also hadn't been properly trained in the use of the assessment tool they were supposed to rely on to determine whether a prisoner up for parole was a high risk for committing new crimes.
"Because the board does not collect and review data related to its decisions, including the outcomes of its decisions, or make full use of evidence-based research, it cannot ensure that offender transitions from incarceration to the community are likely to be successful," the audit stated. The audit further recommended that the state invest more funds to find out which vocational services, substance-abuse treatment services and academic programs that were offered prisoners actually worked.
Since that audit, the parole board has received training on the Colorado Actuarial Risk Assessment Scale, the tool that board members are supposed to rely on to determine how likely a person up for parole is to commit a new crime.
But Kevin Ford, an analyst with the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, said that for four years he has been unable to do his statutorily mandated reports on the efficacy of parole board decisions in the proper way. His reports mostly have cataloged the efforts to create technical improvements so the data he needs is collected properly.
"The reports are supposed to be on the quantity and quality of parole board decisions," Ford said. "There was so much going on to automate the system that the data wasn't available yet. That was the focus pretty much up to the last report. The next report, I'll be able to do more detailed work on the actual decision data."
The Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, formed by former Gov. Bill Ritter and lawmakers in 2007, also has made parole reform a top priority. In 2008, that commission released more than 60 recommendations on probation and parole issues. The recommendations range from ensuring that parolees leave prison with a driver's license or an ID whenever possible, to finding a way to house the nearly quarter of the people on parole who are homeless in the Denver metro area.
Many of those recommendations still have not been implemented, said State Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, a task force member of the commission.
"There are still many gaps that need to be addressed in order to have successful transitions from prison to the community," said Donner, who pushes for prison reform. "We have had a massive buildup in the prison system, and we have not adequately thought about what happens when they get out. So we are playing catch-up."
The tragedy in the killing of Clements was that he was just the man to think through those problems, Donner said. "He was trying to modernize the department," she said. "Tom was the first corrections director we've had in 30 years that actually had a background in corrections, and that matters. He was trying to modernize the department so its operations were consistent with known best practices in prison management and parole supervision. No question."