Colorado parolees: Some fear new policies put public safety at risk
by Christopher N. Osher, Jennifer Brown and Karen E. Crummy
As Colorado struggles to lower one of the highest return-to-prison rates in the nation, parole officers are stuck balancing second chances against punishment for parolees who misbehave.
Documents obtained by The Denver Post reveal the state's parole division two years ago adopted new policies aimed at keeping troubled parolees out of prison and on the streets whenever possible.
But the shift has been plagued by inadequate training and a lack of resources, corrections officials now say. Law enforcement and parole officers question the new direction, fearing the public's safety is at risk.
Parolees are "getting so bold because of the direction the whole division is going in," said Ryan Burch, who supervises sex offenders out of the Englewood parole office. "We're losing the parolees' fear that prevents them from violating their parole."
Two years ago, Greeley police Chief Jerry Garner complained to corrections officials that his community faced a surge of dangerous parolees on the street.
"These people are dangerous to my citizens," Garner recently told The Post, noting his complaints went unheeded. "They are dangerous to my police officers."
Even committing theft doesn't necessarily get a parolee sent back to prison in Colorado. Neither does missing drug tests or having a machete.
Ernest Schmidt did all of those things. Schmidt, who had a history of burglary, theft and methamphetamine use, remained on parole until he killed. Labeled a likely "career criminal" by a prison case manager, Schmidt had been free on parole since Jan. 18, 2011.
Pikes Peak Community College warned the parole system in April of that year that Schmidt had stolen a computer. Schmidt remained free, and his parole officer retrieved the computer and returned it to the college.
Schmidt skipped three drug tests.
A search of his home found a bow, a machete, a marijuana pipe and internal financial records from a rental store. Parole reported the information to the Colorado Springs police department's financial crimes unit, but Schmidt continued to walk the streets.
On July 27, 2011, Schmidt shot two men , one fatally, during a robbery in an AutoZone parking lot in Colorado Springs. He is serving life in prison without parole.
In 2011, the state put in place a new program aimed at standardizing how parole officers handle parolees who get in trouble. The new program is meant to guide parole officers on when they should seek revocations. But there is resistance.
Previously, officers had leeway when deciding to pursue revoking parole. The new program, called the Colorado Violation Decision Making Process, takes into account risk levels of offenders and gives points for violations to determine presumptive sanctions, which can range from verbal reprimands to a revocation.
The program was being implemented while Schmidt was on parole, so his officer didn't use it to evaluate his early violations.
Some parole officers say the program is too lenient and seems to be another way for the state to save money.
Burch, the parole officer, said violations are often a precursor for bigger problems. A person taking drugs, for instance, might be stealing to feed his habit, he said. A sex offender caught with a prohibited smartphone may be a step away from looking at children online.
"How do I enforce the rules when the punishment for violating them has been watered down quite a bit?" he said. "These are safeguards in place to get people into custody before there is a victim."
Others praise the reduction of the number of parolees returned for technical violations.
"People should be re-incarcerated if they are a public safety risk or engaging in criminal activity, not if they don't have a job or place to live or are struggling with mental health or addiction problems," said Christie Donner, founder and executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
A consultant who reviewed the new program last summer found morale low among parole officers.
"Many staff appear to lack an understanding of the department's focus on evidence-based practices, risk reduction and behavior change; the research that supports these strategies; or the knowledge and skills to effectively implement these techniques," wrote Madeline Carter, who conducted the site visit for the nonprofit Center for Effective Public Policy.
In December, an internal corrections audit on the assessment program continued to find problems. That audit reviewed 210 cases in which a parole officer appealed to a supervisor when the program had recommended against revoking parole. In 43 percent of those cases, "training issues were identified, indicating that officers were not using" the assessment tool as designed, a draft report on the audit states.
The audit found parole officers needed to do a better job of documenting and addressing lower-level violations early perhaps by diverting an offender to therapy before more serious violations occurred.
The new program is a work in progress, said Steve Hager, interim director of the parole division. One issue under review is whether stiffer sanctions should occur for those who repeatedly violate their parole terms, he said. Currently, each violation is treated individually and not part of an overall pattern of behavior, Hager said.
In Schmidt's case, had the program been used, it would have weighed his risk level, which was rated high, and any criminal charges. But the college did not pursue charges. The program would have assessed the missed drug tests as low-level violations, said Alison Morgan, a spokeswoman for the corrections department.
Schmidt's bow and machete could have resulted in a summons to the parole board, Morgan said. Records indicate no move to revoke was made until after Schmidt was accused of murder.
The assessment tool was developed for use in Colorado, but other states including Kansas, Georgia, Washington and California have similar but more-advanced programs.
Roger Werholtz, interim director of corrections in Colorado after the assassination of corrections chief Tom Clements in March, allegedly by a parolee, said additional training is needed to improve the program. Another part of the problem, Werholtz said, is that the assessment tool may recommend treatment options that are scarce.
As far back as 2007, an assistant director for the parole division realized the state needed to train parole officers on other issues. Supervisors found that officers were resorting to intimidation and weren't skilled in trying to motivate parolees to change behaviors, documents show.
Despite a $2.1 million federal grant awarded to the state in 2009 to teach "motivational interviewing" techniques throughout the criminal justice system, parole officers still struggle with the techniques.
Three quarters of the parole staff have received training, but just 6.3 percent have reached competency or proficiency, according to data compiled by corrections officials for The Post.
Fewer sent back still goal
Regardless of the problems in training, the parole division has committed to driving down the number of parolees sent back to prison for technical violations.
Last year, the division committed to reduce the percentage of parolees returned for "low and moderate risk" violations to 23.6 percent, a 5 percent reduction from the period of July 2010 through March 2011, strategic planning documents show.
In a November 2012 memo to parole officers , Tim Hand, then-director of the parole division, also urged parole officers to use a summons instead of arresting parolees with violations whenever possible. Hand, who has since been fired, said the division needed to cut back on arrests because it had overspent its budget for holding parolees in jail by $2.4 million.
The push to reduce revocations and arrests back up what Garner, the Greeley police chief, was being told.
"What I was hearing from parole officers around the state is that they were finding it much more difficult to return parolees for technical violations because the state wanted them out of the prison," Garner said. "The state was transferring the cost for these very expensive prison beds to the cities and counties. We were going to have to try them; we were going to have to put them in jail. Our citizens were going to be the victims."
Garner talked to Clements and Hand, who told him he was overreacting.
Whether the state's effort to keep more parolees on the streets is the right move, the consequences of failing to intervene can be deadly.
Susan Daniel tried to save her daughter, Kathryn Young. Parole records show Daniel pleaded for revocation of the parole of her daughter's husband, Rodricke Shari, who was released from prison on parole in June 2007.
Daniel told the parole officer that her daughter's husband was so violent that Young was wearing turtlenecks to cover up choke marks and sleeping in the family's clothing store. But Shari remained free after he was investigated for punching a man in the head and making a threat against a restaurant owner.
"I couldn't get him revoked, but I tried. I would call with anything. I would say, 'What will it take?' " Daniel said. "The problem is they go before the parole boards, and they are sweet as iced tea. They are so sickly sweet: 'I'll be good. I'll be good. I won't do anything wrong.' Saying it for 15 minutes doesn't make it true."
Nearly a year after Shari was paroled, he stabbed his estranged wife 21 times. After killing her, Shari stole nearly $700 from her. Now he is serving life in prison.
"I knew it was going to get worse, and it did," Daniel said. "But no. Nobody listened."
PUBLIC SAFETY: Sweep of former inmates nets 15 arrests
Most were in Menifee and Perris, out because of the realignment law that shifts convicts to local jails
by RICHARD K. De ATLEY
A joint law enforcement team assigned to oversee former inmates released from custody under terms of the state's 2-year-old prison realignment law made 15 arrests during a sweep of Menifee and Perris.
The check Wednesday, Sept. 25 of high-risk or at-large people under post-release community supervision also included unincorporated county areas next to the two Southwest Riverside County cities.
All of those arrested were booked for investigation of violation of probation; additional individual allegations ranged from child endangerment to possession of heroin for sale, being under the influence of a controlled substance and possession of narcotics paraphernalia. One weapon was seized along with an undetermined amount of illegal drugs.
Realignment shifted sentencing for non-violent, non-serious and unregistered sex crimes from state prison to county jails. Supervision of those released from custody after serving time has switched from state parole agents to county probation officers.
One of the most immediate effects on Riverside County has been jail overcrowding.
That has resulted in 6,990 convicted felons being released early in 2012 and the county is on pace to release 11,000 to 12,000 convicted felons this year, District Attorney Paul Zellerbach said in a statement released Thursday, Sept. 26.
A Riverside County Sheriff's news release said that several of those contacted during Wednesday's sweep were complying with terms of their release.
Among those taken into custody:
Randy Hinton, 38, of Perris, booked for investigation of being under the influence of a controlled substance and violation of probation;
Eriberto Sanchez, 32, of Perris, booked for investigation of possession of narcotic paraphernalia and violation of probation; and
Brian Serrano, 33, of Menifee, booked for investigation of possession of heroin for sales and violation of probation.
The sweep was handled by one of the county's three Post-Release Accountability Compliance Teams, or PACT, that were formed to monitor former inmates released from state prison after serving their time, as well a convicted felons released from county jail under mandatory supervision.
The PACT teams are based in central, eastern and western sections of the county. Agencies include the Sheriff, Riverside County District Attorney's office, Riverside County Probation, Riverside Police Department, Corona Police Department , Palm Springs Police Department, Desert Hot Springs Police Department, Murrieta Police Department, Hemet Police Department, Cathedral City Police Department and Beaumont Police Department.Aiding in the sweep on Wednesday were the Sheriff's Special Enforcement team, canine units, members of the Riverside County Gang Task Force, and state parole agents.