CO Gov Hickenlooper Sweeps Parole Review Under the Rug

Review prompted by high-profile violent incidents, including murder of homeless man

Gov. John Hickenlooper
Gov. John Hickenlooper / Getty Images
March 25, 2018

Despite Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) telling the Denver Post nearly two years ago that his administration would "aggressively" review new parole policies, the state's Department of Corrections does not have any summary of findings or any final report of that review.

The declarations from the governor for a review came after a rash of violent incidents involving parolees emerged in the late winter of 2015 and early months of 2016, roughly a year after Democratic lawmakers in the state overhauled elements of the parole system, especially mechanisms having to do with the revocation process.

In one of those incidents, a parolee who had exhibited erratic and violent behavior after his release from prison eventually killed a homeless man in a downtown Denver alley. In another instance, a parolee who had been temporarily jailed for violations would, days later, lead police on a high-speed chase and shootout, in which a Denver Police Department officer was shot in the leg, and the parolee was killed by return fire.

"Are we in any way making the state less safe? That's a big complicated issue because keeping people in prison who probably shouldn't be in prison often times … makes them a greater risk when they come out," Hickenlooper told the Post two years ago.

"That being said," Hickenlooper continued, "if there are people who are on parole who have clear indications that they are posing a threat to citizens, I think it's critical that we understand: Is that an isolated incident or one of a few isolated instances, or is that a change that the parole board—with the best of intentions—they made a decision and it has in some way allowed more people who pose a greater risk on the streets. And that's what we are working very aggressively on to review."

The Washington Free Beacon filed a Colorado Open Records Act request with the state's Department of Corrections asking for any summary of findings or final report from the review, only to be told no such documents exist.

Representatives with the Colorado DOC and Gov. Hickenlooper's office did not return a request for comment.

George Brauchler is the district attorney for Colorado's 18th judicial district who prosecuted James Holmes in the Aurora theater massacre from 2012. Brauchler is also running unopposed for the Republican nomination for state attorney general.

He told the Free Beacon that Hickenlooper has a blind spot in his political make-up when it comes to criminal justice issues.

"It dates back to when he was mayor [of Denver], it was a 'hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil' kind of approach to any kind of criminal justice."

"What we know is that the [Denver] metro area, in fact almost every metro area in the United States, is seeing an uptick in violent crime," he said. "And the answers to why that is happening are important to know so we can figure out how to reduce that trend. And here in Colorado, my suspicions are that because of the recent liberalization and changes in bond laws, in probation revocation, and what happens with DOC parole are allowing people who are inclined to commit crimes to do exactly that." 

Brauchler, along with numerous other elected officials, have been critical of Hickenlooper and the DOC in recent years over a controversy in which James Holmes was relocated to an out-of-state prison, but DOC officials did not disclose his exact location for months.

The Colorado DOC put Calvin Johnson, an inmate who had been in state prison on a number of violent crimes, on mandatory parole in 2015. Johnson had also narrowly escaped murder charges in a jury trial several years prior, which he then confessed to moments after the trial was over.

After his parole in 2015, Johnson began to act aggressively, and often threatened violence.

In October of that year, DOC records show that a parole supervisor recommended Johnson appear before the parole board for a revocation hearing.

"Its (sic) reported that [subject] was being aggressive and intimidating [redacted] at his intake today," the supervisor wrote in a parole log. "This has become a pattern of behavior with this offender. He would not sign the paperwork [redacted] gave him without adding a bunch of his own conditions to them. It is this supervisors (sic) opinion that offender is currently a risk to public safety and to the staff that come in contact with him." 

A day later, the same parole supervisor said in an email that Johnson, "is bragging about his violent history and has made statements that he should have killed his victims."

Later in November and still on parole, Johnson had an outburst at a urinalysis clinic.

A DOC document noted that Johnson began spewing sexually-laced profanities at the staff at the drug testing clinic and, "told a female staff[er] that he had a gun." The log entry goes on to say that Johnson, "did not leave even after staff asked him to leave multiple times. Eventually, staff grabbed his belongings and escorted him off the premises. [Redacted] stated that his staff is very rattled by this [intake]."

Despite these warnings, in December of 2015, the deputy director of parole went before state lawmakers to discuss changes in the system, and held Johnson up as a model of how well the reforms were working:

I’d like to tell you briefly about a, a parolee that, um, has some significant mental health issues. He, uh, was acting out. He was threatening staff.

He, uh, he has coped through his time in prison and on parole by threatening and being aggressive. And his thought was to do this again to hopefully um be revoked because he didn’t want to be accountable and he didn’t want to be on parole.

And our community-based organizations came together and the parole officer came together, uh, the mental health specialist, and we all sat down. And we came up with a plan to, to really challenge this parolee to try.

And we, um, we each pooled a little bit of money and commitment to, to work with this parolee to launch him to be successful. Um, he didn’t completely like the idea of the plan we put together for him and he tried to play us off of each other. And we all came back together again and said yeah it’s not going to work that way.

And ultimately he chose to, um, actually buy a tent, and he’s living in the alley behind our Lincoln Street parole office, but he’s figuring it out on his own. But it was a tremendous collaboration between parole, mental health, and the community-based organizations. And, and that’s how all of this is working, really very successfully.

Just two weeks after that endorsement in front of lawmakers, Johnson stabbed and killed a homeless man. The DOC later confirmed that the person in the anecdote was Johnson.

Additionally, the alley in which Johnson was living was less than a mile from two businesses with which he had violent encounters prior to his imprisonment.

In January of 2017, state lawmakers held a hearing on the issues, with some excoriating the new policies and attitudes within the department.

Hickenlooper is still mentioned as a possible Democratic presidential contender in 2020. A recent report by the Denver Post said it appears there is more behind-the-scenes activity which hints to a run, with that activity included "holding meetings with veteran political players, ahead of a visit to Iowa next month for an official trip that is sure to draw attention."

Published under: John Hickenlooper