The Reality of Escape From the Colorado Department of Corrections
In the years 2005-2008 escapes from supervision by the Colorado Department of Corrections (all data in this post per 2008 annual report of the Colorado Department of Corrections and the Colorado Revised Statutes) have been as follows:
* Publicly run prisons (2008 population 14,637): 18 (includes 1 from a hospital and 1 on a detainer outside prison)
* Privately run prisons (2008 population 5,304): 1 (includes 1 from a hospital)
* Jail backlog (2008 population 119): 1
* Community correction center (2008 population 1,687): 1,656
* Intensive supervision center (2008 population 957): 247
* Other (2008 population 58): 1 (includes 1 under federal tracking)
Total Department of Corrections (2008 population 22,760): 1,924
Total Actually In A Prison or Jail At Time of Escape: 17 (less than 1%)
About 1 in 4 people in a Community Corrections Center in any given year are deemed to have escaped.
About 1 in 16 people in an Intensive Supervision Program in any given year are deemed to have escaped.
By comparison, the jail escape rate in any given year is less than 1 in 476 (a single escape with a low base number can be a fluke and not statistically significant, the long term average is probably lower), and in public and private prisons, the escape rate is less than 1 in several thousand.
Are there so many escapes because Colorado prisoners especially clever or Colorado prison guards particularly lax? Not really.
It is mostly a matter of the definition of the crime.
In the typical situation, 98-99% of escapes reported by the Department of Corrections, are the Department of Correction's equivalent of being Absent Without Leave (AWOL) in the military, which is the military equivalent of a misdemeanor. If you are in a halfway house (i.e. community corrections center or intensive supervision center), and fail to get back at the house at the appointed hour, after being released to work or attend a community function, you have committed the crime of escape with its very serious punishment. Frequently, these cases, sometimes called "walk aways" amount to the function equivalent of a technical parole violation.
Colorado makes no distinction in its statutes betweeen failing to return to a halfway house on time and breaking out of a maximum security prison. Both constitute the crime of escape. Even showing up a few minutes or half an hour late can constitute the crime of escape. The law also makes no distinction between someone who is gone for days, gone to a distant part of the state, and set up a new identity, and someone who makes the bad decision to go out to a restaurant for an hour after work instead of returning on time. And, the law makes no distinction between slipping away while released to a hospital from prison, and climbing out over a prison wall in the dark of night.
This isn't an accident either. Legislative language clearly and expressly states that failing to return to a community corrections center constitutes the crime of escape.
Escape As a Driver Of Incarceration Costs
At sentencing, escape is treated as a very serious crime, with a sentence designed with sentence lengths and mandatory minimum incarceration periods that reflect the scenario of someone who is incarcerated in a prison or jail and somehow gets out.
Often, the minimum sentence in these walk away cases is four years in prison with a new serious felony conviction; sometimes it is longer. The sentence depends upon the nature of the underlying offense, not the place from which the "escape" happened. The new felony conviction will insure that the individual has at least two prior felony convictions, and will often push that person from having two prior felonies to having three prior felonies. This in turn, triggers habitual offender sentences which are much more harsh than those applied to other offenders.
In 2008, there were 974 people under the supervision of the Colorado Department of Corrections are there for the crime of escape, out of a total population of 22,700 people in Colorado. This makes up about 5% of the people who are actually in a prison at any given time in the state. The number of people in prison for escape at any one time in Colorado exceeds the entire number of people in prison for forgery, fraud, embezzlement, organized crime, perjury and "miscellaneous crimes" (collectively, all white collar crimes or possible white collar crimes not prosecuted simply as "theft") in the state in 2008 (which was 718).
How much does Colorado spend incarcerating people for escape? Something on the order of $40 million a year (individuals incarcerated for having "escaped" typically aren't held in minimum security prisons either). This is twice the amount by which the Governor cut the Human Services budget in the latest round of budget cuts for 2009. This also ignores the secondary costs involved with habitual offender sentencing of people who qualify for the sentence solely because of an escape conviction.
In contrast, an actual technical violation of a parole rule that results in a return to prison, such as failing to report at the appointed time to a parole officer, leads, on average, to additional incarceration time of 5 months for the least serious felony offenders released on parole, to 18 months for the most serious felony offenders released on parole (in 98% of cases, the additional time is 12 months or less, and in a majority of cases, the additional time is 8 months or less).
There is already considerable public discussion about the concern that the punishment for technical violations of parole conditions is too serious and too costly. Washington State limits incarceration for technical parole violations to six months (if I recall correctly) without undue problems. Texas has also taken steps to limit punishments for technical parole violations. About 80% of parole violations that trigger a return to prison, however, are for technical violations rather than new crimes.
The punishments for an "escape" from a Community Corrections Center or Intensive Supervision Program, however, is much greater. Yet, there is no obvious policy reason for treating someone who fails to report back to a community corrections center as an escapee, while punishing a felon who violates a parole rule in a way that does not count as an additional crime on that person's criminal record and increases that persons incarceration by a number of months that is less than half what one would serve for a non-violent walk away escape from community corrections.
Obviously, there should be consequences for failing to appear at the appointed time at a Community Corrections Center or Intensive Supervision Program. But, these are people who the state has already decided pose a small enough threat to allow to rejoin society on a limited basis, who have not overcome any physical barrier or limitation on their movement. And, there is no good reason to believe that the draconian punishments now in place for walkaways are more effective at deteurring this kind of behavior than a significant but less costly punishment, like an automatic 30 days jail sentence.
The current law also promotes abuses and corruption by corrections officers at community corrections centers. They have some discretion to classify an event as an escape, or to overlook minor violations. When getting a guard to overlook a minor violation can allow an inmate in the program to avoiid a new felony conviction and a minimum of four years in prison, the guard has incredible power to secure favors from that inmate, and to arbitrarily impose serious punishments on some people who are only slightly in breach, whlie affording others considerable leeway. This is the kind of situation that facilitates abuses like prison rapes by guards of inmates that a federal judge recently noted was a problem of epidemic proportions in Colorado.
An escape conviction is also a very expensive way to punish someone who doesn't manage to get back to the halfway house on time, something that happens with great regularity in practice.