Prison Cells

An advisory committee wants Denver to extend for another year a contract with a private prison company to run four halfway houses that currently provide about 330 beds for offenders transitioning out of prison or on probation.

The current contract held by Nashville-based CoreCivic is set to expire at the end of June, which would leave Denver officials scrambling to find alternative placements for offenders, said Greg Mauro, director of Denver Community Corrections. Offenders could end up having to return to prison without a contract extension, Mauro warned.

The contract extension would amount to a partial backtracking of the City Council’s vote in August to abruptly end contracts with CoreCivic and GEO Group, two private prison companies that operate six facilities in Denver that serve as an alternative to prison. The advisory committee is recommending a contract extension that would run from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021. The current contract pays CoreCivic $6 million annually.

The move to sever ties with the private providers was one of the first signature issues this year from newly elected, more activist city council members.

Leading that charge was Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who represents northeast Denver. She has cited claims of substandard conditions at the facilities run by the private providers. She wants to transform Denver’s community corrections system, which has relied on larger, privately-run facilities in industrial areas of Denver, to a program that relies on smaller facilities that would be dispersed throughout the city and be more responsive to offender complaints and concerns.

Others, such as Jane Prancan, chairwoman of the Denver Community Corrections Board, which oversees the criteria for accepting offenders referred to halfway houses, have warned that push comes with some peril. Upending the way the system has been run will create conflicts as the city relocates offenders to other areas of the city, Prancan has stressed.

Both Prancan and CdeBaca ended up as members of the advisory committee recommending a path forward for the city in the wake of the council’s decision to move away from private providers. That group met late Tuesday to hammer out its vision on how the city should proceed.

During the meeting on Tuesday, CdeBaca made clear that she has Prancan in her sights. She notified other members of the advisory committee, including Prancan, that she wants an overhaul of the city’s Community Corrections Board, including a move for term limits for board members. Creating term limits for the board would result in bringing an end to Prancan’s membership on the board.

Earlier this month, the city council agreed, at the urging of the advisory committee, to spend $1.3 million to purchase from GEO one of the halfway houses, Tooley Hall. The city plans to move women offenders into the Tooley Hall facility. The city lost its sole facility for female offenders earlier this year when GEO Group’s Williams Street facility closed.

The further recommendations that came out of the advisory committee on Tuesday now will go to Denver’s safety manager Troy Riggs for further consideration. Some of the recommendations, such as the proposed CoreCivic contract extension, also would require approval by the City Council.

The advisory committee, with the support of CdeBaca, urged the contract extension as necessary to give city officials additional time to pursue alternatives to housing offenders in the larger facilities operated by the private providers.

The City Council agreed in August to extend contracts with CoreCivic until June, but the company’s facilities will stop taking new clients as early as January, under the current arrangement.

The advisory committee — comprised of two city council members, community leaders and public officials — also urged the city to consider trying to lease or purchase one or more of CoreCivic’s halfway houses.

Even if a contract extension is reached with CoreCivic, the number of beds available for offenders should continue to decline, the advisory committee recommended. Under that scenario, about 80 of the slots available to offenders in CoreCivic facilities should instead be transitioned to intensive supervision parole, which would mean the offenders would be released out into the community and become the responsibility of parole officers.

Prancan disagreed with moving some of the offenders into the parole system. She warned that there’s no guarantee that the parole system has the capacity for overseeing more offenders. She added that many of the offenders currently living in the city’s halfway houses have been convicted of violent offenses.

“They’re people who have committed assaults and child abuse,” Prancan said. “I’m concerned that you could be putting them out there without the resources to manage them. I’ve been concerned about public safety.”

The advisory committee also recommended that the city continue reviewing zoning codes and city ordinances that would allow smaller, community-based residential options that would replace the larger halfway house facilities the private providers have operated in industrially zoned areas of the city.

“These buildings can’t continue to be isolated and be expected to work anymore,” said Councilwoman Jamie Torres, who represents Denver’s west side, and is a member of the advisory group.

CdeBaca signaled on Wednesday that she would continue pushing for changes to the Denver Community Corrections Board, which oversees the criteria for accepting offenders referred to halfway houses.

CdeBaca, in a press release on Wednesday, pointed out that some Community Corrections Board members, like Prancan, have been on that board for years and said she believes it’s time for new blood.

“These are supposed to be four-year terms on a 21-member board,” CdeBaca’s said in her prepared statement. “Out of the four ‘citizen representative’ seats, several have served over a decade, and none have ever served time in a halfway house. This means that people without lived experience in the justice system are implementing policies for those who face immense hurdles upon release.”

CdeBaca said in the release that she wants a municipal code change that would create term limits for members of the Community Corrections Board. She also wants to increase the number of citizen representatives on that board and require citizen representatives to be paid. She added that representation on the board should include people who have actually lived in a halfway house.

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