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How memories of Katrina inspired new local thinking about parole

click to enlarge Parolees are often sent back to prison for "technical violations." - COLORADO BOARD OF PAROLE
  • Colorado Board of Parole
  • Parolees are often sent back to prison for "technical violations."

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Deep South. In addition to wreaking apocalyptic physical damage, the storm killed more than 1,200 people and left thousands more displaced.

At the time, Rosemary Harris Lytle was the Colorado Springs chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She agreed to work on the local effort to help more than 2,000 victims of Katrina — and Hurricane Rita, which walloped the South soon thereafter — resettle in Colorado Springs. The displaced needed a lot of help: new homes, new jobs, career training, new IDs and papers, and someone to help them adjust to their new surroundings.

"Coming to Colorado Springs from the Gulf Coast," she says, "was like coming to Pluto for them."

The venture was successful, she says. Some families eventually moved back to the South; others chose to stay. Some, she says, eventually created better lives here than they had before the storm.

Lytle says she thought about the experience when the NAACP announced new areas of focus in 2009, which it called "game changers." Among them was criminal justice, and the recognition that if there were an epidemic of people going to prison, eventually there would be an epidemic of people coming out of prison. Those parolees would enter their own little Pluto — a world unfamiliar and difficult to navigate. Without help, many would end up back behind bars.

In fact, that's long been the case in Colorado.

Consider: Between December 2013 and November 2014, the Colorado Board of Parole says, the state was home to 10,521 parolees. During that time period, nearly half — 4,826 to be exact — went back to the slammer, where each cost the Colorado Department of Corrections more than $60 per day to house.

Of those, 849 had committed another crime. The other 3,977 had been guilty of "technical violations," like positive drug tests or failure to show up for meetings with parole officers.

In recent years, Colorado lawmakers have decided that fewer parolees with technical violations should be re-incarcerated, and they've passed two bills that aim to help parolees readjust to civilian life.

In 2014, House Bill 1355 directed the state to implement enhanced case management to assess individual risks and needs of parolees, and to offer them cognitive behavioral therapy and reentry services, among other changes. In 2015, Senate Bill 124 directed parole officers to refrain from immediately returning parolees to prison for minor technical violations, instead directing them to help the offender get back on track or to send the offender to jail for a short stint.

HB 1355 also created the Work and Gain Education & Employment Skills (WAGEES) project — a grant program named for a similar federal program. This WAGEES was a set of state-funded grants for local community and faith-based organizations that could help parolees readjust through secular programming. The grants, available statewide, were to total $1 million per year until they sunsetted or were renewed in 2018. SB 124 expanded the grant program to more than $1.7 million per year.

Lytle, now president of the Colorado/Montana/Wyoming NAACP State Conference, heard about the program and decided maybe the same kind of coalition that had helped Katrina victims adjust, could help parolees.

As put by Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs and co-sponsor of both bills: "Rosemary, in her ingenious way, and [with her] connections in the community, cobbled together a group of organizations."

Specifically, Lytle reached out to faith and community groups like Christ Temple Community Church, Pikes Peak Restorative Justice Council, Women's Resource Agency, Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission and Harrison School District 2. All agreed to help her and the NAACP with the effort.

She created a new nonprofit called Positive Impact Colorado, applied for the grant, and was chosen over one other area applicant that was also new on the scene.

PIC began operating about a month ago, and Lytle says it's assisted more than a dozen people who pop into the offices on La Salle Street or (more often) are referred by a parole officer or other state employee. That puts the organization on track to help more than the required 54 parolees this year, even as Lytle says PIC is still in "ramp up" mode, and even as she continues to serve in her NAACP role.

The DOC didn't give PIC the grant directly, instead contracting with the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership to award and oversee all grants.

Richard Paul Morales, deputy executive director of the Coalition, says seven grants have been awarded to similar organizations across the state. PIC will have $150,000 to work with, though money is only awarded as reimbursements.

After the first year, PIC will be evaluated on specific performance metrics. If it follows the grant's stipulations, meets the metrics and helps enough people, it will be eligible to renew the grant for another year.

Morales says he's impressed not only with the WAGEES project, but with the entire set of parolee reforms approved by the Legislature and set in motion by the DOC.

"I've never seen a state agency move this fast," he says. "It's cutting-edge. It is, in my opinion, going to be a model nationally on how to do reentry."

  • How memories of Katrina inspired new local thinking about parole

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