In Colorado, recidivism is defined as a return to prison "for either new criminal activity or a technical violation of parole, probation or non-departmental community placement within three years of release." Colorado's recidivism rate is fairly high compared to other states, at around 53 percent.
To be sure, when offenders released to parole then re-offend (commit crimes), a revocation of parole (or a new prosecution) and a return to prison is a necessary part of the price we pay for separating criminals from the public. But technical parole revocations back to prison (where there is not a new crime, but rather some violation of the terms of parole) is an available area for lawmakers to seek out reforms for both cost savings and more efficient use of existing criminal justice resources.
According to the Joint Budget Committee's FY 2009-10 Staff Budget Briefing for the Department of Corrections (not available online):
Technical parole violations (without a new crime) account for almost 30 percent of the prison admissions to Department of Corrections. These admissions will cost the State at least $42.1 million during FY 2008-09. Although the costs associated with these technical parole violators is high, there are few guidelines provided to parole officers to determining when an individual's parole should be revoked for a technical violation.
In other words, members of the parole board, and individual parole officers, have significant, and mostly unchecked power to drive costs and expenditure of state funds.
In 2010, the General Assembly passed House Bill 1360, which is intended to reduce revocations for technical violations of parole. According to an analysis of HB 1360 by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition:
In lieu of revocation for a technical violation, the parole board may modify the conditions of parole and require the parolee to participate in a residential or outpatient treatment program. If parolee is revoked for a technical violation, the maximum time of re-incarceration in prison is 90 days if the parolee was assessed as a lower than high risk and the parolees underlying conviction was not for a crime of violence, menacing or stalking. A parolee can be re-incarcerated up to 180 days if s/he is assessed as high risk or is revoked to a community return to custody facility or community corrections facility and the underlying conviction was not for a crime of violence, menacing or stalking.
The 2010 Colorado legislature also unanimously passed House Bill 1023 in an effort to start removing barriers to parolees and those with criminal backgrounds in obtaining and keeping employment, a key element both to successful completion of parole and to avoiding re-incarceration for technical revocations due to unemployment. This law, among other things limits the admissibility of evidence of an employee's criminal history in a civil action against an employer where "the criminal history did not have a direct relationship to the underlying cause of action in the civil case."
The 2011 General Assembly already passed and Governor Hickenlooper signed into law House Bill 1167, generated out of the recommendations of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ). This bill shortens the time frame people convicted of certain drug offenses (schedule is staggered based on seriousness of the offense) must wait before petitioning the court to seal that criminal record.
With HB 1360 and HB 1023 last year, and HB 1167 this year, Colorado lawmakers made very careful steps towards both slowing admissions to prison for technical revocations and lowering barriers to employment for parolees. The legislature also allowed broader authority to use coerced treatment instead of incarceration when appropriate in an effort to avoid using valuable prison beds unnecessarily.
Future General Assemblies should take advantage of these steps, and continue to take advantage of the expertise and vetting process of the CCJJ, to continue pursuing reforms designed to both increase the ability of parolees to get and keep employment, and decrease technical parole revocations to prison.
This article has been adapted from the Independence Institute Issue Paper, "The Case for Further Sentencing Reform in Colorado."