According to a 4th Judicial District Community Corrections Program Data report obtained by the Indy, unauthorized absences from community corrections facilities in El Paso County have nearly doubled since 2020. In 2019, there were 126 unauthorized absences, in 2020 they jumped to 251, and through August of 2021 there have been 224.
“ComCor Inc. has seen an increase in unauthorized absences,” admits Mark Wester, executive director of ComCor Inc., which has three halfway houses in El Paso County. “We are what I call an ‘open campus.’ We’re community based. A lot of our clients, nearly in excess of 80 percent, are employed in the community. They go out and work jobs every day in the community, so it’s not like there are fences. They’re not like prisons. It’s a community-based alternative to prison.”
Community Alternatives of El Paso (CAE), which is run by the Geo Group, has one facility in El Paso County, and they too have seen an increase in unauthorized absences, according to a Geo spokesperson. The factors behind the increase in escapes and walkaways from these facilities are multifaceted and complex, but Wester and local elected officials point to legislative efforts at criminal justice reform.
“I certainly think there is a correlation to the change in the law that made walking away from one of these programs a misdemeanor versus a felony,” says El Paso County Commissioner Carrie Geitner, R-District 2, of 2019’s Senate Bill 1019. “The numbers really started to increase right around that time, and I think that is certainly contributing to the rates that we’re seeing.”
SB-1019, sponsored by local legislators Sen. Pete Lee, D-SD11, and Reps. Tony Exum, D-HD17, and Marc Snyder, D-HD18, was signed into law March 6, 2020. The timing seems to coincide with the rise in unauthorized absences. “The thing that changed in late spring, early summer of 2020, was legislation that made unauthorized absence, escape from a community corrections facility, a misdemeanor rather than a felony,” says Wester. “Other providers across the state are seeing the same thing. When an unauthorized absence or ‘escape’ happens, we notify the police and the courts and from that point on we don’t have much control over what exactly happens in terms of law enforcement.”
Criminal justice reform advocates argue there are multiple factors to consider when discussing unauthorized absence rates — particularly the COVID-19 pandemic. Blaming unauthorized absences on SB-1019 “fits a convenient narrative for people,” notes Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, who reviewed the report obtained by the Indy. “I think a lot of the disruption in ComCor is around COVID. With COVID, drug use is up. Anxiety and mental health challenges are up. All of the things that are affecting the general population are also going to be affecting these folks, and maybe even in a more acute way. Pandemics are very harmful to humans on many levels. Do they have sick family at home that they’re worried about? There can just be a whole lot of other factors that people have to really analyze.”
Juaquin Mobley, vice president of CommunityWorks, a nonprofit that works with members of community corrections programs, agrees with Donner. “In my professional opinion, formerly being a resident of a halfway house, what happens is there’s a lot of influences outside the halfway house that directly impact the inside of the halfway house, in the sense of work, family, things like that,” he says. “When you walk into the halfway house they expect you to not care about those things. If you have a child, and they get sick and go to the hospital, you’re in the halfway house, technically doing prison time — but as a parent you would want to go see your child, right? They don’t give you that opportunity. They say it’s out of location, things like that. There’s a lot of things happening, which happen to all of us, that aren’t taken into consideration when you’re dealing with individuals in the halfway house. As a result, it’s influencing people to abscond or just give up and walk away."
Wester says ComCor is taking steps to address the problems. “Client engagement, first of all, is a very important aspect,” he says. “Really trying to work with clients and engage them and help them understand the benefits of staying in treatment, in care and exiting their responsibilities and legal mandates appropriately and without further violations of the law. We have also increased our case management support and services at ComCor Inc. We have case managers that are really working closely with each client to help them be successful in the program. It’s closely related to that client engagement. We’re continuing to enhance our security measures. We’re a staff secure program. We do a lot with staff and video monitoring. We’ve installed a new camera system to help us with our monitoring on grounds.”
While the increase in unauthorized absences is concerning, Geitner, who also serves as a liaison between the El Paso County Commissioners and the Community Corrections Board, says that is only part of the problem. “It’s prudent for us to look at all of the factors that we think are contributing to that,” she says. “Certainly a legislative change is one that I would be interested in, but we want to have an effective program that keeps the community safe and helps to get folks into a place where they can be a productive member of society. I think there’s a couple other angles to take a look at it from, and that might include the diversion clients and whether that is being successful. We’re kind of in an information-gathering [phase], looking at doing some additional studies and saying, at the end of the day, we want a successful program. Escapes are part of that, successful completions are part of that. In addition to the things that we’ve identified, we want to continue to do that research and find what other factors might be contributing to that so we can improve the program.”
Donner notes that issues with community corrections programs in Colorado have been ongoing. “It’s useless for people to say, ‘Oh this is the problem. We had much better rates until the unauthorized absence statute passed,’” she says. “That’s just simply not true. What’s going on? That’s the deeper question. We’ve been seeing pretty lousy outcomes in ComCor for many, many years. This industry gets $70 million a year, so in the last six years they haven’t topped 50 percent [successful completion rate]? Tell me where in the private sector people would still be able to get funded for these kinds of outcomes?”
The report also detailed successful completion rates for transition and diversion programs. “Transition” refers to programs that transition incarcerated people back into the community through halfway houses, while “diversion” programs allow a first-time offender juvenile to avoid a criminal record and conviction. From 2016 to 2020, the average successful completion rate for diversion programs was 39.24 percent, and 58.9 for transition programs.
“Diversion clients tend to be a younger population that have a lesser amount of time to break their addictive behaviors and have impulsivity issues,” notes the Geo spokesperson. “Nor have they had the level of treatment and programming that transition clients have received.”
Wester also acknowledges the low success rates. “This issue is not new,” he says. “I can tell you also that the successful completion rates have been fairly stable in the data I’ve reviewed in the history of community corrections. When you’re working with someone that is chemically dependent, and typically has a history of violating the law, you’re dealing with someone that often makes poor choices and it’s a collaborative effort. You’re trying to collaborate with someone that doesn’t necessarily want to change. The conversation for community corrections is, ‘What are the factors that we can control?’ so that more clients are successful.”
According to Geitner, in 2021 El Paso County paid $4.9 million to ComCor and $4.5 million to CAE for their community corrections programs, but notes that the successful completion rates in El Paso County are comparable to similar programs across the state. “It leads me to say we need to take a look at the overall program across the state,” she says. “This is not something that is our providers not doing a great job, it’s not something to say that El Paso County or the Board is not doing a great job, it really says, ‘We need to take a holistic look at this program, across the state, and look at the legislative implications of things that are happening and have a conversation about how we keep our community safe, and how we create a program that has a better success rate.’”
Donner notes that community corrections programs have a difficult task. “We’ve asked ComCor to be a whole lot of things that they may not be able to be, particularly since most of the folks that are in them have very high substance abuse, mental health challenges, and they’re not really able to operate,” she says. “ComCor is based more on a stabilization idea. Come in here, get a job, follow the rules and stabilize and get on your way. There’s a lot of challenges for people finding work, even in this economy. You would think, ‘Anybody can get a job,’ but we still have a lot of the barriers based on the fact that they have felony records. All of the same barriers and challenges people had are multiplied by 10 during a pandemic. Ideally, what we would love to see is moving away from this ComCor model and really looking at more residential treatment.”
Geitner says it is too early to make a decision on the future of community corrections programs. “I think it would be premature to take any action without identifying the problem,” she says. “If the providers are being hamstrung, so to speak, by state regulations and they’re operating within a framework where the framework isn’t providing a way to be successful, we wouldn’t want to automatically jump to the provider. Certainly they need to be held accountable for providing good programming, but I don’t think we are in a place yet to say that it is the fault of the provider. I think we have a lot of state requirements and legislative requirements that are often created, and it’s the folks on the ground who really see the impacts of those.
Geitner isn’t the only elected official in El Paso County concerned about legislative attempts at criminal justice reform. “We can’t ignore the significant impact that legislation has in encouraging criminal behavior,” said 4th Judicial District Attorney Michael Allen in an email. “We have seen a consistent push from the legislature and the governor’s office to reform the criminal justice system, but their efforts have proven to be misguided. What they have created is directly leading to drastic increases in violent criminal behavior. When an offender escapes from their ComCor placement they are unsupervised in the community and that puts citizens at risk.”
Mobley disagrees, and says programs like his are helping people involved in community corrections programs get their lives back on track. “I think giving people a chance to get out is always a good thing, to make right from their wrongs,” he says. “The halfway house can play an integral part in getting people out sooner as far as what they would have to wait on for parole. CAE and ComCor allow us to come in and enroll people to help them get jobs. We go in there, do presentations. We come in there as a resource, and for a lot of the ones that go through our program, they’re able to see the bigger picture, complete the program, and get released from the halfway house into their own housing.”
According to data provided by the Latino Coalition for Community Leadership, which evaluates Transforming Safety Initiative grant recipients like CommunityWorks, 457 individuals were served in Colorado Springs from Sept. 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021. Of those, 99 percent of adult program participants have not been reincarcerated since; 71 percent of adult program participants have secured paid employment or started a business or completed a recognized occupational training/apprenticeship program; and 85 percent of youth program participants have avoided or mitigated involvement with the criminal justice system.
Mobley says community-based nonprofits like his can make a difference on the success rates of community corrections programs. “ComCor, CAE, they have to give us a chance as community partners to go in there and offer the resources that those people need to be successful,” he says. “They’re starting to do it, they’re seeing the positive results.”