Prisons chief defends early releases

A program in which 10 state prison inmates were released this month was accelerated by the state’s budget crisis, Colorado Department of Corrections head Ari Zavaras said Thursday.

It also was the result of an extended effort to better and more effectively handle the state’s prison population, Zavaras told about 40 people in a forum on “Prison Spending, Sentencing and the Colorado Budget,” sponsored by Club 20, the Golden-based Independence Institute and the Pew Center on the States. The event was at Two Rivers Convention Center.

The accelerated transition-from-prison program, or the so-called “early release program,” was criticized as a precursor to a crime wave by ex-convicts, Zavaras said.

“Personally, I just don’t see it,” he said. “This is a very well-thought-out program.”

The program is also in the vanguard of efforts by state and local officials to better deal with the state’s prison population.

Zavaras and several other officials, such as Pete Weir, the executive director of the Department of Public Safety, took pains to point out that the accelerated transition program was not the result of “touchy-feely” approaches to criminal behavior.

Zavaras and Weir are both former police officers, and Zavaras twice has headed the Department of Corrections, while Weir has served as a prosecutor and judge dealing with violent crime.

“You can look at me and tell that I’m not touchy-feely,” Zavaras said.

A strident approach to treating criminals in Colorado, however, hasn’t been a powerful deterrent to crime, panelists said. Colorado’s 50 percent recidivism rate is among the nation’s highest, Zavaras said.

The Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice is looking to recommend steps the Legislature can take to reduce that number. Among them this year will be some reforms to drunken-driving laws, more consistent sentencing and changes to parole-eligibility requirements.

One program that has avoided the budget ax is the juvenile diversion program, Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said, noting similar programs have been among the first things cut to meet budget requirements.

Preserving programs aimed at reducing expensive prison populations to save tax money and ultimately prevent victimization is difficult enough, said state Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora.

Changes to the way prisoners are handled, Zavaras said, won’t affect violent sociopaths who belong behind bars but do hold promise for inmates who are beset with drug, mental-health or similar problems but can be returned to society with proper care.

Among those steps are making sure former inmates have housing, employment and support especially at the beginning of their transition to life outside the prisons, panelists said.


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