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Denver Gazette: Prison chief risked public’s safety | Opinion | #alaska | #politics

It can help to use a carrot as well as a stick — figuratively speaking — in controlling criminals behind bars. It can even make sense to test novel approaches to prison life if they show potential to rehabilitate convicts. Just don’t let any reforms jeopardize public safety.

Colorado’s prisons chief, who announced he is stepping down from the post after nearly four years, didn’t stop at innovating inside prisons walls. He made it easier for criminal convicts to get back out on our streets early — through escape — imperiling the public.

Colorado Department of Corrections Director Dean Williams drew much-deserved fire earlier this year when it was learned he had barred his parole officers from seeking criminal charges against convicts who fled halfway houses. Yes, even as Colorado’s crime rate was spiking.

Williams now claims he merely wanted to let local authorities decide whether to press charges against those escapees — a turnabout from standard procedure. But as The Gazette reported in July, law enforcement officials around the state were furious and felt blindsided by the department’s policy not to seek charges. It’s still unclear how long Williams’ policy already was in effect when the officials found out last June and sent a letter of protest.

“This is nothing short of a dereliction of DOC’s duty to keep local communities safe while transitioning offenders back into those same communities,” wrote Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Shrader in the June 27 letter to Williams.

The department only rescinded the policy after public exposure and push-back from police and prosecutors.

As The Gazette reported at the time, the escape rate for prisoners at Colorado halfway houses nearly doubled between the state fiscal year ending June 2020 and the following year. It’s no wonder, considering there were no consequences.

Williams’ experiments to the peril of public safety didn’t end with that reckless policy. As reported by The Gazette on Sunday, his department was forced to pause a work-release program after an inmate cut off his ankle monitor and fled to New Mexico. Fortunately, he was captured within hours. The program paid inmates at least minimum wage and employed more than 100 of them as recently as March before it was put on hold.

Safeguarding the public to the extent possible should be the top priority of the justice system at every stage — from arrest, through prosecution, to incarceration. Rehabilitating prisoners through work release programs and halfway houses should never, ever come at the expense of increased risk to public safety. Such policies are supposed to offer a transition that prepares prisoners for a return to society — not provide an easy means of escape.

Perhaps we should expect no better from a prison chief whose gentle touch with convicts seems derived in part from the kind of feel-good truisms you find on a coffee mug. Like the mug Williams said inspired him when he toured a prison in Norway.

“When I was in Halden Prison (in Norway) five or six years ago, I think a saying was on their water cup or coffee cup, and translated it says, ‘Just don’t sit there,'” Williams told The Gazette.

“I just love this saying,” he gushed — without a trace of irony.

Indeed, Colorado’s inmates didn’t just “sit there.” Given the chance, they got up and ran.

Gov. Jared Polis appointed Williams in 2019 after he was ousted over his permissive policies as Alaska’s prisons chief. Let’s hope the governor chooses more carefully this time.

Denver Gazette Editorial Board

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