Parole is meant to provide services and supervision to reintegrate parolees back into society. Originally considered part of an offender’s punishment, it has evolved over decades to focus on rehabilitation.
But changes made to Colorado’s parole system have opened a rift among state agencies, parole officers and activists who argue about whether the pendulum of parole management has swung too far.
The number of Coloradans in prison for a technical parole violation has steadily increased in recent decades. In 1990, 12 percent of Colorado’s prison population was incarcerated for a technical parole violation, according to data compiled by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. By 2010, that percentage climbed to 39 percent.
“The first thing to realize is that most technical violations are substance abuse- and mental health-related,” said Ann England, a professor who teaches in the Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Colorado School of Law.
Early this decade, Colorado lawmakers began enacting changes to reduce the rising number of people in prison for such offenses.
In 2015, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law a bill that made allowances for parolees who committed technical violations. Rather than immediately facing a parole revocation hearing and spending the remainder of their parole in prison, parolees were to face “swift and certain” sanctions of up to 180 days in jail and recommendations for treatment services.
Proponents lauded the policy change as a means to reduce recidivism, aid rehabilitation and ease prison crowding. Critics said it returned criminals with a proclivity to re-offend to the streets.
In 2014, 339 parolees were re-incarcerated each month for technical violations. In 2015, that number fell to 301 and in 2016, 236.
However, a March 2016 Denver Post investigation found the policy came with a cost. The investigation highlighted cases in which violent offenders remained on parole despite warning signs they would re-offend. It also obtained an internal memo that said the state parole director and assistant director were the only people allowed to put a parolee up for a revocation hearing.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith likened it to the idea that sheriff’s deputies would have to get his approval before making any arrest.
“That’s absolutely ludicrous,” he said.
Barry Wood, a Northern Colorado resident who has worked as a parole officer for 16 years, said the changes took responsibility away from the parole officers who knew parolees best. Parole officers are no longer able to administer consequences as they were before, and parolees know it, Wood said.
“What they don’t understand is that we’ve had crime since Cain and Abel, right?” he said. “There are bad people in the world. There are career criminals. There are people who, no matter what we do, will still go back to the same environment, and they won’t change. The thing that they understand is a consequence.”
A month after the Denver Post investigation and facing public pressure, Hickenlooper in April 2016 ordered the Colorado Department of Corrections to review 10 years of cases “with the greatest level of risk” to determine whether offenders served the proper amount of time.
The governor’s office told the Coloradoan the review is ongoing.
Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said criticism of the state’s parole changes is unfounded. Current policies reflect best practices nationwide, she said, whereas past policies led to an “ongoing revolving door” for offenders.
She pointed to two examples: Mesa County in 2005 decided to build a residential drug treatment center. The same year, Denver approved funding to build a new jail. Although Mesa County has not expanded its jail, Denver’s is full again, she said.
“We can just throw people back in prison, and we’ll spend $30,000 to keep somebody in prison for a year,” Donner said. “But how do we want to spend our criminal justice resources and public safety resources in a way that actually promotes public safety?”
After Canales-Hernandez was released on parole, he was ordered to complete an anger management program and participate in a substance abuse treatment program. His parole officer in June noted he seemed to be accomplishing his goals.
But on June 15, he missed a mandatory drug test and admitted to smoking marijuana. He blamed peer pressure.
In July, he approached his parole officer about moving in with his girlfriend, Alexa Coria, who was pregnant with his child and who had three other children. His file does not indicate whether the move was approved.
In August, he missed a mandatory anger management class.
Later that month, he reported to his parole officer that he quit his construction job because he said he was being disrespected. The same day, his parole officer ordered he set up drug and alcohol treatment.
They also discussed the court-ordered restitution of about $350 that he was to pay to various victim’s compensation funds. He never made a payment.
Despite the violations, his parole was not revoked, nor was he jailed in a “swift and certain” sentence to be used for technical violations per the 2015 law.
Four months after his release from prison, in September 2016, Canales-Hernandez admitted to killing RaeLynn Martinez, the 11-month-old daughter of his then-girlfriend, Alexa Coria, and Isaac Martinez.
Canales-Hernandez had completed seven of 11 state-ordered anger management sessions at the time of RaeLynn’s death.