A Colorado legislative committee on Monday morning debated the fallout from a decision a week ago by the Denver City Council to kill contracts with private prison companies that operation six halfway houses in the city.
Denver absorbs about half of the 200 state prisoners who go into community corrections each month.
A shutdown could have major reverberations that could range from sending those the last stages of their detention back to prison, to forcing state prison overcrowding, to possibly requiring a special legislative session to fund a solution, according to questions raised before the legislative Prison Population Management Interim Study Committee.
The panel was already scheduled to take up issues regarding how people move through the state prison system.
On Aug. 5, the Denver City Council, led by its most progressive members, voted 8-4 not to renew $10.6 million in contracts for CoreCivic and GEO Group, private prison companies operate facilities across the country. GEO operates detention facilities for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including one in Aurora, which sparked the Denver vote.
Denver city officials later in the week said they had come to a verbal agreement to keep the six community corrections facilities operated by CoreCivic and GEO open in the short term while the city discusses the matter with the companies.
"There has been a direct statement from City Council to divest in these organizations," said state Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, who chairs the special committee on prison population. "I hope to see a plan that moves us in that direction, so that we don't have to continue to worry about that at the state level.
"These folks do not deserve to be back in prison, especially those that are doing everything they need to be doing, everything they've been told they need to do to transition back to be with their families and communities," she added. "I hope that remains the No. 1 priority for both the city and the state and whoever else is involved in this process."
Dean Williams, executive director of Colorado's Department of Corrections, said currently there are 531 people in the six Denver community-corrections facilities, and 350 of those were sent there from a state lockup. There also is a near-constant waiting list of about 200 inmates waiting to get in.
"There's really not a viable long-term plan for what to do with that 350," Williams told the committee, adding that there was no advance notice of the vote or risk to the contracts.
"Operationally this would be an incredible challenge," Williams said. "This would throw another complication not just with the 350 but the 200 who are stacked up who have been approved waiting to go into there."
He and others are hoping Denver can work out an interim contract with the companies until a long-term solution can be worked out without causing havoc in the system. The companies have said they will remain open while Denver works on options.
"I wasn't aware it was an issue, to be honest," Williams said of last week's unexpected decision not to renew the decades-old contracts with the halfway-house contractors.
About 140 people work at the six halfway houses, and some businesses rely on the workforce provided by the facilities, the legislative committee heard.
New facilities won't be easy to establish, Herod said. Wherever halfway houses are established, zoning issues come into play, and many neighbors are resistant, she said.
"We are having a hard time opening community corrections facilities in every county in Colorado," Herod said.
State Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Commerce City, said the 200-person waiting list and the tight system was troubling.
"It sounds like it was a major problem before the council had its vote," she said.
Denver has four halfway house providers, though GEO and CoreCivic provide 517 of the total 748 beds.
Troy Riggs, the executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety, said the city is determined not to lose capacity, even if the contracts are not renewed.
He agreed with Herod that there are no current zoning options to build community corrections facilities.
Riggs said city officials are working on a solution with the City Council.
"We're not just talking about 517 human beings," he said of those currently in the halfway houses. "We're talking about their family, their friends, we're talking about their employers that have invested in them." Riggs said. "We're talking about this city that's trying to give people a second chance at being productive citizens, and we want that to continue."