There is no way to reconcile the murder of Colorado’s prison chief Tom Clements. A prison reformer who came to Colorado from Missouri, Mr. Clements pushed for prison programs aimed at helping inmates reintegrate into society — an important view and mission for anyone responsible for protecting the public from criminals and their harmful behavior.
Because of Mr. Clements tragic murder, Colorado has started a comprehensive and thorough review of the systemic failures that lead to the early release of Mr. Clements murderer, Evan Ebel, and how those systemic failures can be best addressed.
Corrections officials have initiated a series of internal reviews within our state prison system, and have worked with our courts to do the same. This will, in fairness, take time given that there are tens of thousands of computer files and pieces of paperwork to analyze.
There are, however, two very clear systemic failures that have already been identified and could be quickly fixed. Or rather, could have been quickly fixed.
You see, the annual legislative session has ended, and the Colorado General Assembly has adjourned for the year. The end of the General Assembly’s 120-day session also brought an end, at least for this year, any opportunity to fix those public safety issues already identified as a result of the investigation into Ebel’s accidental early release.
As we now know, Ebel, who is also suspected of killing pizza delivery man Nathan Leon, was released four years early do to a clerical error in the “mittimus” (the order from a judge that tells prison officials the length of time a criminal is to spend behind bars).
In this case, the judge called for Ebel to serve an additional four year sentence due to an assault Ebel committed while in prison. But the order received by corrections officials did not reflect that the additional four years be served on the back end of Ebel’s the original sentence.
Because of Colorado case law, sentences are served at the same time unless it is clearly delineated in the order to commit that the sentences be served one after the other. So because of human error, Ebel was released four years early.
Noting the inherent public safety risk associated with the way sentences are currently handled, I asked Democratic leadership in the House for a “late bill” to fix this problem – and prevent the next Evan Ebel from wrongly being released on to Colorado’s streets. Any legislative issue that arises after the final bill deadline requires a “late bill” from the House Leadership. Democrats are in charge of the House and they are the ones who must agree to allow a late bill to be introduced and considered. I was granted a late bill along with Rep. Claire Levy (D-Boulder) to address this issue of concurrent vs. consecutive sentencing. Because of the law we passed, I believe that this particular systemic failure has been addressed sufficiently.
But another glaring deficiency that came to light as a result of this investigation relates to “earned time” or for prison inmates. This loophole was not fixed.
Under current law, inmates can “earn” fewer days in jail if they participate in programs designed to rehabilitate their criminal behavior. Ebel was one of those inmates who earned time off even though he quit or had been kicked out of the rehabilitation programs that he signed up for.
State corrections officials say they don’t have the ability to revoke earned time if the inmate doesn’t finish a program or acts out by assaulting or killing another inmate a prison guard. To fix this, lawmakers could easily provide corrections this authority or clarify existing authority with a simple bill like we passed to clarify the issue of concurrent vs. consecutive sentencing.
I asked Democratic leadership for a late bill to make sure that violent criminals are not able to keep their earned time, especially if they are clearly not ready to be safely released into our neighborhoods.
Democrats said no.
By allowing this gaping loophole to remain open, Democrats are gambling with the safety of our families and our communities. They are continuing a dangerous practice to remain in place, a dangerous practice that allows violent criminals to leave prison early, putting everyone at risk.
And that’s something all Coloradans should be concerned about.
Rep. Frank McNulty was Speaker of the Colorado House for the 68th General Assembly. He represents Highlands Ranch, Colorado.