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A pedestrian walks past the former GEO Group Williams Street Center, a community corrections facility, at 1763 N Williams Street in Denver on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

The Denver City Council last year cut ties with private halfway house operators because council members feared the system warehoused too many offenders in isolated industrial areas, unsuited for rehabilitation.

Council members say they plan to replace the large industrially-zoned buildings that private prison companies operated with a network of smaller halfway houses placed in residential neighborhoods throughout the city. They also support boosting the number of prisoners released annually on ankle bracelet monitoring in Denver by about 130 individuals annually.

But placing offenders closer to mass transit, their families and potential employers will mean dispersing a population that in recent years has taken on an increasingly harder edge when it comes to past convictions, state data reveals.

A Colorado Politics analysis of 11 years of corrections data provided by the Colorado Department of Criminal Justice shows it’s not just low-level drug offenders who rely on Denver’s community corrections system. It’s also those convicted of sex crimes, violent assaults and even homicides. And the rate of those felons with violent crime convictions taking up community corrections beds is on the rise.

At the same time, escapes from the facilities and recidivism are rising while factors that would show success — completion of the program and lower risk levels after six months — are on the decline.

For Jane Prancan, who for more than 17 years has chaired the Denver Community Corrections Board, which oversees the criteria for offenders referred to halfway houses, the data confirms what she’s seen occur over the past decade.

During that time, she said, Denver officials, prodded by state policies, agreed to help more offenders convicted of more violent and more serious offenses transition out of prison and into community corrections facilities with the goal of easing their return to society. But as that occurred, past city councils and policy makers, under pressure from wary neighborhood activists, took a hard-line stance on where the offenders would go, she said. Placements were restricted primarily to outlying areas, near factories and industry, and in larger facilities that allowed institutional supervision, Prancan said.

Upending that bargain, Prancan predicted, will cause political blowback for council members pushing the change in philosophy.

“They don’t give a hoot about public safety, but they will when the neighborhoods start hearing about it,” Prancan said of the council members who have pushed for newer and smaller neighborhood-based halfway houses and an increase in ankle bracelet monitoring. “When the neighborhoods understand they are going to be putting people in neighborhoods without proper supervision, there will be huge conflict.”

Prancan pointed out that private providers question whether they’ll be able to turn a profit when offenders are housed in smaller facilities. Replacing the larger facilities with smaller ones can only occur if current standards are loosened, she predicted. It’s also unclear whether the parole system can handle the projected increase in ankle monitoring of inmates in individualized living situations, she warned.

Violent offenders on upswing

In Denver-based community corrections facilities, the number of violent offenders using the transition program has increased steadily, more than doubling since 2009. In the last fiscal year, they made up about 22% of the city’s 1,079 offenders who went through the program. Conversely, the number of offenders convicted of controlled substance crimes has been halved.

“What we’re seeing, as a trend, is higher risk individuals coming into programs supported by the science of criminal justice policy makers,” confirmed Greg Mauro, Denver’s director of Community Corrections.

He said that in theory community corrections programs are supposed to help offenders transition gradually instead of dumping them straight into the parole system.

“Part of that goes to an intentional focus to place higher risk clients in community corrections,” Mauro said. “If you just really want good statistics, you’d only take low-risk offenders. You’d reject almost everyone DOC or the courts send your way. You’d cherry pick and only have low-risk clients, which is a waste of money and time.”

Putting only low-risk offenders into community corrections can be counterproductive, he added. Research shows that overtreating low-risk offenders actually can make them more likely to commit new crimes or violations.

The decline in those convicted of drug crimes taking up community correction beds in Denver and the rest of the state appears to have been sparked in part by the legislature’s move to overhaul drug sentencing laws in 2010 and 2013. Those reforms reduced many felony drug possession charges from felonies down to misdemeanors.

Colorado Division of Criminal Justice Director Joseph Thome said the increase in offenders with violent crime convictions using community corrections also comes as a response to capacity issues within the state’s prisons.

“They’re more willing to take a more serious offender now than they used to, because of the sophistication of community corrections to create a safety net around these folks and provide the services they do,” Thome said. “So, as the boards have been recognizing the overcrowding at DOC, certain boards are saying ’95% of people that go to a correctional agency come back to live in this community already; We’d rather have them come back with the skills and services they need.’ ”

The same trend — violent offenders making up a larger portion of the halfway house transition population, while controlled substance offenders make up a smaller portion — is happening across the state, but it’s more pronounced in Denver.

In one Denver facility, the CoreCivic Columbine Community Treatment Center, the portion of offenders who had committed violent crimes reached 29% in 2016, the highest of any facility in the city over the past decade.

A rape victim, in a letter she wrote to an advisory committee that studied how to replace the six halfway facilities run by private prison companies in Denver, said she feared the city council had put the public at risk by moving toward a neighborhood-based approach for offenders leaving prison.

“This is not public safety or concern for anything other than what offenders have told you is best for them,” she wrote. “What about our children and loved ones? What about citizens that don’t commit crimes?”

The rape victim added in her letter that Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who represents northeast Denver and led the charge to terminate the city’s contracts with private providers GEO Group and CoreCivic, “would be more interested in hearing from victims if you were beaten, had your clothes ripped off and violated.

“You may not think I have valuable input but believe me, my family and I will have a lot to say when we go door-to-door in the neighborhoods to oppose these group homes,” her letter continued.

CdeBaca’s chief of staff, Lisa Calderon, declined to make CdeBaca available for comment, but she said that both she and CdeBaca have been victims of violent crime and have worked with survivors of violence.

“Safety was paramount in her decision, which isn’t derived from retributive justice but through community safety measures, including communal rehabilitative models,” Calderon said in a prepared statement.

She added that many of those cycling in-and-out of incarceration have backgrounds of trauma, with female offenders in particular struggling with high rates of victimization themselves.

“If we are going to make our communities safer then we need to address victimization from all angles of the justice system, including halfway houses,” Calderon said.

An alternative to prison

Colorado established community corrections in the 1970s as an alternative to prison incarceration. The system provides a step-down approach that is supposed to help felons leaving prison re-enter society gradually. Generally, felons can apply for community corrections six months before they’re eligible for parole. Community boards like the one Prancan chairs then have the final say on which candidates to select for the programs. The boards often contract with private providers, which receive state money to provide housing and programming.

The system also offers judges an alternative to prison when sentencing felons.

The community corrections program is intended to give offenders a structured environment with programming and monitoring that help them learn job skills or how to cope with drug addiction. It’s an alternative to putting felons straight onto the streets after prison or leaving them in or sentencing them to the more restrictive prison environment.

About 95% of those incarcerated in prison eventually will be released, and community corrections plays a crucial role in helping ease many of the individuals back into society, said Denver Community Corrections Director Greg Mauro.

“Let’s say you’ve been in prison for seven years, and a lot has changed,” Mauro said. “Do you think it’s a smarter idea to drop you off at Smith Road and say, ‘Check in with your parole officer in two weeks,’ and they’re across town? Or do you think it’s better to send you to a place where you’re fed, and you have a safe place to stay, and you have a case manager assigned to you who works with you and helps get you a job and works with you to stabilize you while we’re providing you 24-hour supervision?”

Perhaps further complicating the city council’s effort to move the facilities into residential neighborhoods, outcomes are looking bleaker in recent years. In Denver, the portion of community corrections offenders who successfully complete the program has declined somewhat, hitting a low of 51% in 2017.

At the same time, the number of offenders who have escaped from the facilities has risen in recent years, now accounting for about one in four offenders, up from about one in seven in 2009. The state’s data show 762 community corrections offenders escaped in the past three years, an increasing portion of which have violent felony convictions, notably assault.

In some facilities, like the GEO facilities in Denver’s City Park West neighborhood and the GEO and CoreCivic facilities along Interstate 70 in the Park Hill neighborhood, as many as one-third of offenders escaped in some years.

The Gazette/Colorado Politics analysis does not account for about 140 offender beds devoted to specialized programming. The state doesn’t have precise data on those offenders because many move between programs, complicating efforts to track them. Still, their numbers are so low that their absence likely does not significantly change the Gazette/Colorado Politics analysis.

The data also show that six-month risk assessments are being done less frequently for the community corrections offenders, particularly among those whose risk is “high” when they come into the program.

Six-month risk assessments decreased for offenders no matter whether they successfully completed the program, escaped or committed technical violations or new crimes.

In GEO’s Denver facilities, six-month risk assessments went from being performed on more than two-thirds of offenders in 2009, to less than a quarter in 2018. In CoreCivic’s Columbine facility, only 16% of offenders received a six-month risk assessment in 2019.

Challenges in neighborhood approach

The move by council members to smaller halfway houses in residential areas will return the program back to its roots, Mauro said. Denver’s system of halfway houses originally had a number of facilities like what council members now envision, with halfway houses on Gaylord Avenue and Williams and Pecos streets and other residential areas, he said.

Neighborhood activists began to push back in the 1990s, and the council back then responded by rezoning community corrections so the facilities were consigned away from residential settings and sent to outlying areas more suited for factories and industry along the I-70 corridor, he said.

The city has struggled to make do with 10 facilities, which have grown larger as new beds were added and, as a result, have taken on more and more of an institutional feel, Mauro said. There was nowhere else to place offenders because the zoning had become too restrictive.

“Buffering and distance requirements essentially shut down where you could site community corrections,” Mauro recalled.

He said the move back to a neighborhood approach likely won’t come without a struggle. The council members most vocal in seeking the shift, CdeBaca and Jamie Torres, who represents Denver’s westside, are pinning their hopes on a rezoning overhaul for group homes they say will be settled by this summer.

“These buildings can’t continue to be isolated and be expected to work anymore,” Torres said during one meeting of the advisory committee as officials sorted through the issues raised by the decision to sever ties with the private providers.

CdeBaca’s staff referred questions to Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for reducing prison populations. Donner said that in Denver, tracking shows only about a third of Denver’s community corrections clients show successful outcomes two years after entering the program.

“You don’t see robust reduction in recidivism,” Donner said. “That is the same type of environment that triggered people to want to have a different conversation in Denver.”

She applauded the push for smaller, residential-based facilities in Denver and stressed that she doubts offenders will target neighbors where they live. Only about 2% of offenders in Denver community corrections are terminated from the program after being charged with new crimes with about a quarter terminated for house or technical violations, which can involve low-level criminal activity.

Donner said that large prison firms now dominate community corrections in Colorado and said Denver’s shift away from private providers will pay dividends, even if it’s causing upheaval in the short term.

“As private prison companies saw the trend in sentencing reform and reducing incarceration, they were afraid of losing market share,” she said. “So they expanded their portfolio into alternatives to incarceration. Now they get paid whether you go to prison or not. They’ve covered the market, and all of that has gotten us far away from the original intent of community corrections.”

But complicating the move toward the neighborhoods are warnings from private providers elsewhere in the state that the facilities need to house at least 60 offenders for providers to be able to make money, Mauro said.

“When this all went down this last summer, overnight you completely pushed 80 percent of the capacity off a cliff with no plan,” Mauro said. “It was just a bad plan from the outset.”

CdeBaca and Torres have countered that regulations guiding group home operations should be relaxed to allow smaller facilities to begin operating.

“I’m optimistic we can get to where we have better options and we can continue to learn and run better programs,” Mauro said. But not all neighborhoods will welcome new halfway houses with open arms, he predicted..

“History would suggest not,” he said.

To deal with the unintended consequences, an advisory group was formed, comprised of Coucilmembers CdeBaca and Torres, other public officials, policy experts and providers.

The city moved forward with terminating the contract it held with GEO Group to run two halfway houses, at the urging of the committee. The city last month spent $1.3 million to buy one of GEO Group’s halfway houses, Tooley Hall. The city lost its sole facility for female offenders when GEO Group’s Williams Street halfway house closed, dispersing those offenders to programs in outlying counties. Now the city plans to remodel Tooley Hall for a female population.

A program that was lodged in Tooley Hall to help reshape cognitive thinking of hardened offenders has been relocated to one of the Denver jails. Figuring out what to do with the 340 offenders housed at four CoreCivic facilities has been a thornier issue, Mauro said.

The city council in August extended the CoreCivic contract until June but stopped accepting new clients. Another contract extension could be on the horizon.

The advisory committee urged the city to extend the contract for another year. During that year the city will try to move about 130 offenders into ankle monitoring while also working on alternative housing arrangements. The committee also urged the city to explore leasing or purchasing at least one of the CoreCivic facilities.

Mauro said if the city doesn’t come up with a plan for replacing the CoreCivic beds, the city is in danger of losing about 70 percent of the $18 million it receives annually from the state for community corrections programs.

“As the Denver program constricts, there is no guarantee we’ll ever get the money back,” Mauro said. “We’ll have to compete against other jurisdictions, and we’ll have to compete with other priorities in the state budget.”

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