DENVER—New Colorado corrections chief Rick Raemisch has only been on the job eight weeks, but he’s already on the hot seat.
He outlined ambitious plans for prison and parole reform Friday at a hearing of the Joint Judiciary Committee, but also faced tough questions in the aftermath of this year’s high-profile murders by a just-released parolee.
Among his ideas were audits and enhanced supervision for parole officers to ensure that they are meeting standards; assessments when prisoners are first admitted in order to identify recidivism risk factors and to steer inmates toward appropriate rehabilitative services; and an overhaul of services received by prisoners before parole in an effort to smooth the transition.
“It’s not a broken system,” said Raemisch in his opening comments at Friday’s hearing. “I’ve been here eight weeks. But it does have problems that I’ve seen, and problems that fortunately all of them can be fixed.”
The two days of committee hearings over concerns with Colorado’s parole system followed the March slaying of former Department of Corrections executive director Tom Clements.
The killer, 28-year-old Evan Ebel, had been released on early parole Jan. 28 straight from solitary confinement. Due to miscommunication within the DOC, Ebel never served the extra four years added to his sentence for assaulting a prison guard.
On March 14, Ebel removed his ankle bracelet. Three days later he murdered pizza delivery driver Nathan Leon. It wasn’t until March 19, five days after he removed his bracelet, that a parole officer finally attempted to contact him. On the same day, he drove to Clements’ home and shot him at the front door. Ebel was killed two days later in a shootout in Texas.
The series of bureaucratic errors leading to the murders triggered calls for reform. Reaction has been positive to Raemisch’s plans, although some legislators Friday grilled corrections officials about the price tag and follow-up.
“While operational changes are needed, the DOC must first seek to enact these changes by re-allocation of the funding currently in place before requesting an increase in their budget,” said state Rep. Polly Lawrence (R-Douglas County) in a statement after the hearing.
In June, the Joint Budget Committee did approve a DOC supplement of nearly $1 million for the formation of a Fugitive Unit, which will specialize in rounding up parole absconders and reducing response time for ankle bracelet tampering alerts, as opposed to the current system which levies these responsibilities on parole officers.
In transferring the responsibility for absconders to a specialized unit, department officials are hoping to ease parole-officer workloads, allowing for enhanced supervision of non-absconders and possibly leading to fewer parole failures. The request was approved by a 4 – 1 vote, with state Sen. Kent Lambert (R-Colorado Springs) dissenting.
At the time, Lambert said he was more concerned about management than funding, and was not sure if additional revenue would address problems with administration.
Steve Hager, acting director of the Division of Adult Parole, Community Corrections and the Youthful Offender System, said Friday he doesn’t yet know how the annual budget will be affected by the changes.
“We are evaluating the utilization of our resources to ensure that we are utilizing those resources appropriately and in the right places,” said Hager. “And at the conclusion of that evaluation we may need to come back in front of you when we identify those needs.”
Hager said he believes the current resources are adequate, but given that the department is at the beginning of an intensive evaluation process, the jury is out on how these reforms will affect taxpayers and the state budget.