ComCor corporate WEB

The ComCor corporate headquarters in Colorado Springs on Thursday.

First in a series by The Gazette’s investigative team 

Colorado's criminal justice reforms are delivering a more violent mix of offenders to the state's troubled community corrections system, filling up local halfway houses already struggling with violence, staff sexual misconduct, rampant drug use and health and safety concerns, a new Gazette investigation shows.

The beleaguered system is increasingly failing to rehabilitate offenders, according to state audits, data and incident reports. The recidivism rate has grown worse. Escapes are rising. Risk assessment, a formal process attached to each offender as they make their way out into the community seeking employment, is lagging.

Instead of fulfilling their role as a safe alternative to prison, the community facilities have become ravaged by drug trafficking so severe that one El Paso County judge reports defendants have begged him for prison instead.

Female prisoners fear conditions inside the halfway houses so much they’d rather stay in prison than shorten their sentences by transitioning into a halfway house program, the state Corrections Department reported to lawmakers two years ago.

The system’s shortcomings persist despite state officials promising five years ago to reform the local network of halfway houses in the wake of a state budget cost-benefit analysis that calculated the state gets little benefit from all the money it spends on halfway house programs.

The study, done after an escapee from an Arapahoe County halfway house shot up the facility with an assault rifle, injuring two, found that more than half of offenders who go through the program are charged with a new crime within five years of release.

Reforms envisioned in the wake of the analysis remain at least three years away, while costs to the state continue to rise and more offenders end up in halfway houses as the state pursues bipartisan criminal justice reforms. The annual subsidies the state pays halfway house providers are set to hit $86 million for the fiscal year beginning in June — 60% more than what the state paid out eight years ago.

As the cost and use of halfway houses increase, they remain ill prepared to meet their mandate to protect the public by helping offenders become productive members of society, according to a new set of evaluation tools the state began using this year. Data shows that increasingly they're taking in offenders with violence in their past who are then expected to find jobs that take them out into the community.

And critical incident reports filed with the state have documented even more problems. A review of the reports going back to 2017 show at least 90 allegations of sexual misconduct, including 55 involving staff, three homicides, three suicides, 13 overdose deaths, drug use, drug trafficking, more than 500 police visits, an ongoing FBI investigation into alleged financial fraud at one facility, complaints about black mold, reports of inadequate nutrition and overflowing toilets.

COVID-19 is challenging the facilities in new ways. Offenders in a halfway house program in Colorado last month signed a petition stating they feared the cramped quarters made them vulnerable to infection. And with prisons facing calls to release prisoners due to the virus, halfway houses may end up having to take in even more offenders.

The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, the state agency that regulates halfway houses and oversees their state funding, neither imposed financial penalties on dysfunctional halfway house programs nor closed any of them since 2017. Though the state has occasionally required corrective action plans after malfeasance emerged in facilities, in the past two years, no action plans have been required. Local officials have intervened rarely.

“There’s no real accountability,” said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for reducing prison sentences. “We get stuck with crap, and we’re paying top dollar for it.”

Problems lightly regulated

Two Colorado Springs halfway house programs have some of the most acute issues, including repeated reports of staff sexual misconduct.

A halfway house maintenance worker at one of the Colorado Springs facilities blackmailed female offenders for sexual favors by threatening to send them back to prison, according to his guilty plea on sexual assault charges and details in a lawsuit the facility confidentially settled. Late last year, the facility, now under new ownership, fired a case monitor there after finding that she sent cellphone texts that appeared to set up a meeting to score meth and have sex with an offender she supervised.

The board of directors of the other facility fired its chief executive officer and alerted the FBI and IRS of alleged financial improprieties by him last year. The facility recently fired a security supervisor after substantiating that he sexually assaulted female residents there.

Despite the problems at the two Colorado Springs halfway house programs, the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice hasn’t imposed financial penalties or sanctions and instead the state in February increased the money they receive.

“We are not a human resource agency, and we have to be careful that we don’t interfere with human resource issues in a program,” said Katie Ruske, the program manager for community corrections at the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.

State lawmakers in charge of crafting the state budget in February agreed to a $900,000 infusion of additional state subsidies so the two Colorado Springs halfway houses could add 125 beds, increasing their capacity by nearly 25%.

The state has acted more forcefully in the past, Ruske pointed out, closing down an acutely troubled halfway house in Pueblo owned by a former Pueblo city councilman in 2013, another Pueblo halfway house in 2014 and one in Alamosa in 2016. Local officials shuttered other programs in Adams County and in Denver.

But documents show it took years of accumulating problems before the state moved to close programs.

For instance, the San Luis Valley Behavioral Health Group in Alamosa struggled to keep qualified staff, failed to report drug overdoses and suicide attempts and did not follow up on sexual misconduct reports of staff or refer them for investigation and repeatedly violated treatment standards, state audits from 2010 through 2016 show.

In one incident, the facility's management forced halfway house residents to clean up blood after another resident sliced a wrist in a suicide attempt. In another, the facility's managers neglected to alert the state after another resident went into a coma after overdosing on the drug spice. The state only moved to shut that program down in 2016 after determining that records had been falsified, according to one letter from state officials.

Another provider, Advantage Treatment Centers, Inc., reopened the facility in Alamosa after acquiring it from the former operators, but problems have continued. A resident there in 2017 never returned to the halfway house after he left his work release job at a landscaping company. Instead, he murdered a teen with a shotgun, left the body near a reservoir, and then led police on a high-speed chase that left five officers injured.

Escape valve from crowded prisons

To conduct its statewide investigation into halfway house conditions in Colorado, The Gazette reviewed three years of critical incident reports, 11 years of corrections data, five years of audit reports, recommendations from a state community corrections task force and meeting minutes of local community corrections boards and the Governor’s Community Corrections Advisory Council. The newspaper also took the first public look at the new set of evaluation tools for halfway house providers that the state started using in 2019. The issues detailed in the more than 4,000 pages of documents reviewed by The Gazette likely are understated because state officials withheld the release of hundreds of critical incident reports they claimed would violate patient privacy rights. Further, the newspaper also found instances where facilities failed to alert the state of problems despite policies requiring them to do so.

Among the reports uncovered during the review by The Gazette:

• In 2012, firefighters had to rescue an elderly disabled female resident struggling with cancer from a crawl space filled with waste water after she fell through a rotting floor while showering at one Denver halfway house.

• At a halfway house in Denver an offender last year claimed his counselor engaged in oral sex with him and asked him to rough up her daughter's boyfriend.

• An offender bypassed lax security in a halfway house in Pueblo to sneak in a 16-year-old girl last year to sexually traffic her to three offenders in the bathroom of the facility

• Between October and December 2019, police arrested three Colorado Springs halfway house residents in separate incidents involving a vehicle: One for a hit-and-run crash, another for a driving while intoxicated charge with at least four prior DUI convictions and another on a felony menacing charge for dealing heroin while armed with a loaded gun.

Despite the problems, Colorado’s network of local halfway houses have become an escape valve for crowded prisons, as those local programs fill with more violent offenders, who increasingly escape from the program and do not get required risk assessments.

Although state officials going back nearly two decades have acknowledged shortcomings in the network of local, primarily privately run halfway houses, their plan to fix it won’t be finished for three years. The plan, first envisioned six years ago, is centered on incentive-based contracting, which will pay more to better performing halfway house providers to entice them to improve.

The proposed incentives won’t fix the problems, predicted Donner, the prison-reform advocate. “It will just mean the state will pay (crappy) programs a little less,” Donner said. “If you’re fine with the money you’re making now, there’s no incentive to do anything different.”

Starting with good intentions

Colorado launched the state’s community corrections system in the 1970s after Sen. Ralph Cole, a Republican powerhouse in the Legislature who had run prison camps during World War II, led a group of officials and lawmakers on a tour of halfway house programs in Iowa.

Cole’s vision was that community involvement would help correct low-level, nonviolent offenders such as forgers and car thieves and turn them into productive members of society. He emphasized local control. Legislation Cole successfully pushed in 1974 authorized locally elected officials to create local community corrections boards that could screen and reject referrals to programs in their communities. Two years later, the state Legislature authorized $300,000 to finance through the local boards a handful of small, mostly family owned halfway house programs in a few counties to take in offenders.

The local community corrections boards decide which offenders are appropriate for the programs. Prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses can apply for a local halfway house program within 19 months before they become eligible for parole. Those convicted of violent offenses can apply nine months before . Judges also can directly sentence offenders to community corrections halfway houses.

In theory, halfway house programs should rigorously assess why offenders commit crimes and then use those assessments to determine how to redirect offenders away from destructive patterns. Since about 95% of prisoners eventually will be released from prison, halfway house programs should play a crucial role in transitioning them back to the community. But data and audits suggest they’re not achieving those goals.

These days the state’s halfway house facilities are far different than the ones launched in the program’s modest beginning. There are 32 halfway houses spread across the state in all but five judicial districts.

The small halfway house operations that began in the 1970s have been replaced for the most part by much larger programs, with nearly half of them housing more than 100 offenders at a time. Big private prison firms have rushed in, housing offenders in abandoned motels and buildings in industrial zones.

Between 2009 and 2019, the population of residential offenders moving through the system has been relatively stable, as many as 5,440 residents in 2009 and dipping to 4,843 in 2017. But in the past three years, the number of residential and nonresidential offenders is rising again. There are plans in coming year to add more bed space , which, if current trends continue, will increasingly be occupied by a more violent mix of offenders, including murderers, armed robbers and those convicted of sexual offenses.

During the past decade the cost to the state to run the community corrections program has grown steadily from $56 million in fiscal year 2012 to $86 million in fiscal year 2019. The latest state budget proposal includes an $88 million appropriation for the program.

While Sen. Cole’s vision of the state’s community corrections program emphasized community control of the individual facilities, and while there are still local oversight boards, the majority of offenders who go through the program end up in a facility run by one of a small number of private prison operators, whose names have become antithetical to criminal justice reforms that seek to reduce prison populations, like The GEO Group and CoreCivic.

Over the past decade, 57% of the offenders who have gone through the state’s community corrections program have been in a privately-operated facility. About 29% went through a nonprofit facility. The private and nonprofit companies that run them are contracted and overseen by the local community corrections boards. Only 14% went through a facility run by a county.

In recent years, the typical offender in the state’s community corrections program has also changed.

Since 2014, coinciding with the upswing in the overall offenders going through the program, more of the state’s community corrections offenders are older. In 2019, for the first time since the earliest year, the state began publishing detailed information about each offender in 2009, residential offenders older than 35 outnumber offenders between 18 and 35.

The number of residential community corrections offenders whose underlying conviction was a drug crime has declined by one-third since 2009. But that number has been nearly equally offset by the increase in residential offenders with violent criminal convictions, like child abuse, assault, sexual assault, kidnapping and homicide.

The increase in violent offenders has mirrored the changes in the state’s criminal justice system generally, with reforms leading to less imprisonment for low-level crimes.

The tens of millions of dollars  in subsidies the state pays the halfway houses is just a small fraction of the money at stake for the providers. The facilities charge offenders more than $500 a month for rent and other services such as therapy.

“The halfway houses continue to be a huge concern that has not been adequately addressed,” said state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who chairs the legislative black caucus. “I’m concerned that people leave community corrections in greater debt than they went in, and they’re coming out with less likelihood of success.”

Escapes, recidivism on the rise

In 2018, Colorado’s Department of Corrections reported to the Legislature that female offenders were opting to stay in prison rather than transition into a halfway house program when they became eligible due to safety concerns.

A survey conducted that year found that offenders pan the programming and conditions, with nearly half of those turning down a chance to enter a halfway house stating they did so because the facilities had a negative reputation. More than a third of the female offenders surveyed said they turned down the halfway house option because they were concerned about access to drugs and staying sober inside them, and a quarter of them said they did so because they feared for their safety.

El Paso County Chief District Judge William Bain in a public meeting in September of the El Paso County Community Corrections Board, which he sits on, reported that he’d heard similar complaints about drug use. Bain said he had grown tired of hearing defendants ask him to sentence them to prison, instead, to avoid relapsing because of the prevalence of drugs in a halfway house.

More recently, he said in an interview with The Gazette that he hoped a promised crackdown by the operators of the halfway houses had fixed the problem, and noted that the complaints from defendants had subsided.

Concerns about alleged poor conditions at halfway house programs prompted controversy in Denver last year when the City Council moved to cut contracts the city had with two out-of-state private prison firms, GEO Group, Inc. and CoreCivic, Inc., that owned six halfway houses there. The move was praised by reform advocates. But it also generated fears that if replacement facilities aren’t found offenders won't have facilities in Denver to transition to from prison.

The same data compiled by the state that shows community corrections offenders are increasingly older, with a greater mix of violent criminals, also shows the system is increasingly failing to rehabilitate offenders.

The state’s data categorizes offenders into categories of “termination.” Offenders either successfully complete the program, escape, commit a new crime, or commit a technical or house violation.

Anything other than successful program completion can lead to more criminal charges, a transfer back to jail or prison, longer sentencing or other punitive measures. Statewide, the number of offenders who successfully complete the program is declining, from about 65% of offenders in 2009, to closer to 55% in recent years. At some facilities, as few as one-third of the offenders successfully complete the program.

Privately run facilities have the lowest success rate, and county-run facilities have the highest.

Since 2009, escape accounts for an increasing number of offenders at almost every facility in the state. About one out of every nine offenders escaped in 2009, but now, about one out of every six offenders escapes.

Like the decline in success, the increase in escapes is most pronounced in the privately run facilities, where one out of every five offenders escaped in 2018.

Nearly every offender gets a risk assessment when they enter a community corrections program. The assessment produces what’s called a “level of service inventory” (LSI) number. The LSI numbers are categorized into low-, medium- and high-risk categories.

Since 2009, the population of offenders going into the community corrections program has increasingly higher LSI risk scores. The number of low-risk and medium-risk offenders came down about 20%, while the number of high-risk offenders has made up the difference.

At the same time, an increasing number of offenders fail to receive a risk assessment within six months, which is required in state guidelines for the facilities. From 2009 through 2011 about 38% of offenders didn’t have a six-month LSI assessment reported to the state, but from 2017 through 2019, about 55% didn’t. The decrease in six-month risk assessments has come almost entirely from offenders classified as high-risk when they entered, and has been most pronounced at privately-run facilities.

Offenders who go through the community corrections system are more often being charged with new crimes:  A growing number end up facing new charges within one or two years.

In 2009, one out of every five offenders who successfully completed the program faced a new criminal charge within one year. Now it’s more than one in four. And the portion of the same group of offenders who successfully completed the program but who end up with a new criminal charge within two years climbed from 33% to 42%.

All told, only one of every three offenders go into community corrections, successfully complete the program, and avoid another criminal charge within two years. That’s down from more than 42% in 2009.

The increased recidivism is more prevalent among offenders who came into the program with a moderate or high initial LSI risk. The only group whose final outcome isn’t worsening is the dwindling number of low-risk offenders in the program.

Failed history of promised reforms

State officials in meetings and reports going back nearly two decades have acknowledged shortcomings in how the halfway house system has grown. A report from the research arm of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice warned in 2002 that “excellent programming” in halfway houses in the state “may be the exception rather than the rule.”

Now, 18 years later, the same problems remain during this year's legislative session, according to an analyst’s report for the Joint Budget Committee. The new report noted that since all facilities get paid the same no matter their quality of service, there is “no incentive for a facility to provide quality care or to have successful outcomes.”

Similar warnings in 2014 from a state community corrections task force and a damning 2015 cost-benefit analysis by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy and the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative prompted pledges from state officials that they would find a new way to evaluate halfway house programming and would develop a plan to incentivize better performance.

Since then, the performance-based contracting plan has moved forward fitfully. The Division of Criminal Justice this year finally is rolling out new evaluation tools for halfway house programs, but officials say those remain a work in progress. Part of the delay has stemmed from work on an overhaul completed in 2017 of the state’s standards for halfway house providers, said Ruske, the state's manager of community corrections.

“We want this done right and meaningfully,” said Joe Thome, criminal justice division director, stressing that if the performance incentives aren’t crafted well there could be unintended consequences. For example, he warned,  giving more money to programs with offenders who commit fewer crimes upon release could  result in local boards accepting only low-risk offenders rather than the higher-risk offenders who need services the most.

While the incentive pay system and new evaluation tools have lagged, the Legislature hasn’t shied from new policies to increase the use of halfway houses.

In 2018, the Joint Budget Committee directed the Corrections Department to try to put 8% of its prison population into halfway house programs.

Bipartisan legislation passed that year also included provisions meant to entice prisoners to apply more often for halfway house consideration. Under the legislation, offenders who successfully complete halfway house programming are automatically referred for parole consideration. And the legislation required prisons to automatically prepare offenders for reconsideration for halfway house programming within six to 12 months if they’re initially rejected.

In February, lawmakers authorized an emergency infusion of $4.8 million to further bolster halfway house capacity. The funds will add more than 400 beds, with $900,000 going to two troubled halfway house programs in Colorado Springs.

The system keeps churning

One of the Colorado Springs facilities, Community Alternatives of El Paso County, Inc., failed to protect female offenders from a sexually predatory employee, according to a federal lawsuit it settled in 2016. The lawsuit alleged that the facility instituted a culture of fear in which residents were threatened with sanctions, including possible return to prison, if they pursued complaints against personnel.

The facility, now under the new ownership of Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO Group, Inc., late last year had similar sexual misconduct allegations that resulted in the firing of a female case monitor. She was accused of harboring an escaped fugitive from the facility at her home and of supplying offenders meth, according to an incident report filed with the state.

A lawyer is preparing to sue the other Colorado Springs halfway house program run by nonprofit ComCor, Inc., on behalf of a female halfway house resident who claims she was sexually assaulted by a security supervisor. Sexual misconduct allegations aren’t a new issue for ComCor. A 2017 state audit found that ComCor failed to investigate or report alleged sexual assaults at its facilities and struggled with lax security standards and an “alarming rate” of staff turnover.

In 2016, ComCor continued detaining an offender housed there 14 months after an El Paso County judge had terminated the offender’s sentence, records show. The facility contended it hadn’t been told the offender’s sentence had ended, but an El Paso County corrections supervisor said in an email to state officials that ComCor, Inc., shared some of the blame because it “did not remain diligent in their follow-up or follow-through efforts.”

Last year, ComCor's board fired the chief executive officer, Sean McDougall, and alerted the FBI and IRS of alleged financial fraud by him. El Paso County officials said the law enforcement investigation is ongoing. He allegedly had been leasing to ComCor a building he owned in Pennsylvania, according to documents filed with the state. An email to the state from ComCor said there was no valid reason for the lease because ComCor never occupied the building. McDougall did not return telephone messages and emails seeking comment.

El Paso County community corrections officials have since placed ComCor on a corrective action plan, and ComCor officials said they're making the required improvements.

Meanwhile, officials with the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice say they will do a better job of reviewing halfway house critical incident reports filed with the state.

“I do think that I and others in our office will work on what we are doing to track those and to look for trends,” Ruske said. “Our office can do more in that area."

She said that while the performance-based contracting plan remains a work in progress, she expects it will raise the level of performance once it’s ready.

As the state continues working on the reform measures promised at least five years ago, people in halfway houses say they struggle with difficult conditions.

Last August, a female halfway house resident at ComCor, Inc., recounted to police the “fight or flight” thoughts that rushed through her mind when a security supervisor kissed her and put his hand down her pants. Because of the security supervisor’s power to send her back to prison, she thought she had no choice but to submit as he turned her around, pulled her clothes down and forced himself on her, she told the police.

She said the repeated sexual assaults from the ComCor supervisor left her traumatized and fearful, bringing back memories of a sexual assault she suffered as a teen. Still at the facility, she told police she feared her alleged assailant would target her and get revenge for her blowing the whistle on him. Other women at the facility came forward in the wake of her allegations to say the supervisor also targeted them. Colorado Springs police continue to investigate the allegations which led to the firing of the ComCor employee.

The woman who alerted authorities is just one of the offenders to enter into Colorado’s halfway house system since state officials began pushing for new measurement tools and other reforms in 2013.

She's one of the more than 30,000 more offenders who have gone through the program during that time. By the time the state rolls out full implementation — the new measurements are now promised for 2022 — that number likely will include many tens of thousands more.

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