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Denver's decision to end halfway house contracts may impact Colorado prison system

What started as a Denver City Council decision on halfway houses is now rippling into a statewide concern.

DENVER — The decision by Denver City Council to end the city's contracts with two private halfway house providers has created a ripple effect that is now being dealt with at the Colorado state capitol.

Lawmakers have learned that the state's prison population may increase because of the council's decision to end the contracts with GEO and CoreCivic, two companies that provided halfway house services for more than 500 people in Denver.

If they were to shut down, the people in those facilities may need to go back to prison, county jail or get released early.

RELATED: Denver cuts ties with 2 halfway house groups possibly leaving 500 people in limbo

At the capitol on Monday morning, the Prison Population Management Interim Study Committee met for the first time this off-session.

It was created to study "strategies to safely reduce the prison population and decrease recidivism and monitor prison population reform legislation by the General Assembly."

The first item on the agenda was to hear from public safety chiefs on the impact of Denver City Council's decision.

"It certainly wasn't on my radar," Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams told the committee. "In the short term, there's just really no way to handle that inmate population coming back to us."

Williams answered questions along with Colorado's Department of Public Safety Executive Director Stan Hilkey, Denver Public Safety Chief Troy Riggs and Denver Deputy Public Safety Chief Eric Williams.

The committee is chaired by Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, a state lawmaker who has sponsored several criminal justice reform bills.

"Is there anything that's stopping these facilities from shuttering tomorrow?" asked Herod.

"In a short answer, no," said Eric Williams.

Hilkey warned of what could happen if the facilities did shut down suddenly.

"If clients were to feel as if it was going to be an abrupt shutdown, they'd rather take their chances and walk away than go back to prison," said Hilkey.

According to Riggs, there are 360 people transitioning in a CoreCivic halfway house and another 157 in the GEO-run facilities. They continue to be housed by those private companies, for now. Those Riggs said the city and those companies do not have a handshake agreement.

"We believe that losing capacity would adversely affect our community," Riggs said as he talked about public safety concerns.

"Part of community corrections is getting them assistance for mental health issues, dependency issues, if they don't get that assistance and go back to jail, when they hit the streets, it's less likely they are going to be productive citizens. It's more likely they're going to go back to prison," said Riggs. "We want to get those individuals the help they need and deserve. Some of them commit crimes because they have mental health issues, not because they're criminals."

The halfway houses are used to transition an inmate from prison back into the community. Sometimes judges sentence a defendant directly into the community corrections facility.

"It does an allow an opportunity for someone to get a job, to go to their work and then come back to the community corrections facility at night, so it is intended as a step-down option back to the community," said Dean Williams. "If you're pushing people out before they should be released, yeah, there's a public safety concern, of course."

According to Dean Williams, there are 180 male beds available in prison and 100 female beds. Some of them are in maximum security prisons and others are in one of the state's mental health facilities. Those would not be beds that could be filled with these inmates if they were forced back to prison.

Herod said sending these people back to prison is concerning.

Sen. Robert Rodriguez, D-Denver, was critical of Denver City Council's decision.

"The inability for anybody's forethought of the implications of the decision being made was something that was sorely missed in that meeting," said Rodriguez.

Another option for the people being released would be to utilize ankle monitoring.

"That is one of the alternatives that we are looking at," said Eric Williams. "GEO, my understanding, is a parent company that owns part of the ankle monitoring services."

After the public safety chiefs gave their initial presentations, the room became silent after a victim advocate asked a question on behalf of victims.

"I haven't heard any of you mention the impact on the victims of the offenders in these two facilities," said Kazi Houston of the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center. "What do you anticipate as the impact, specifically around notification and safety planning?"

"Who would like to take that?" asked Herod. "Alright…"

The public safety chiefs have been invited back to the committee's next hearing on Aug. 26.

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