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Group living reform “the foundation of change” for Denver halfway houses 18 months after vote killing private prison contracts

Every other Saturday for four months, 20 women gathered in central Denver to discuss the future of halfway houses for women in the city.

They talked about how to provide trauma-informed programming to women leaving prison and how to make the facilities meant to ease that transition more homelike and less like miniature prisons.

After a 2019 Denver City Council vote upended the city’s community corrections program, the group saw an opportunity to make positive change. But they needed more leeway in the city’s zoning code to bring their vision to full life. Last week, the City Council approved the changes they needed to make that vision real.

“This is the foundation of change, this zoning work,” said Pam Clifton, communication coordinator for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, who was part of the group. “This gives the opportunity to focus on what Denver’s vision is.”

For 18 months, Denver leaders and residents have worked to find new providers to replace the private for-profit prison corporations that ran halfway houses here for years until the City Council in August 2019 unexpectedly voted to end their contracts. It remains unclear who will run the new programs — or whether there are people in Denver who can do so — but the change in zoning codes means those trying to create the new program have six times the amount of space with which to work.

“We have a little bit of freedom to transform community corrections to meet our modern vision of what community corrections should look like,” said Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who led the effort to end the city’s contracts with the private prison companies.

Halfway houses are group living facilities for people transitioning out of prison and those sentenced to the programs as a condition of probation. Residents can generally leave the houses during the day for jobs and also participate in counseling and classes in a structured, supervised environment.

The new code expands the amount of land available to halfway houses in Denver from about 5 square miles to nearly 30 square miles across 15,000 parcels. The newly available land is in commercial districts but not in areas zoned for single-family homes, two-unit homes or rowhouses.

The changes will not bring an explosion of halfway houses across the city because there is limited demand and money for the services, said Greg Mauro, director of Denver’s Division of Community Corrections.

“It’s a long process to change a service model, to identify providers that we believe are effective and safe,” he said. “It’s kind of a niche provider space. There are not dozens and dozens of providers statewide, let alone in the metro area.”

Halfway houses currently exist in residential areas, Mauro said, and even more were present in those areas decades ago. The zoning change gives potential service providers far more options while seeking locations that fit their needs and budget, Mauro said. The previous lack of possible real estate meant the city had few options but to buy property from the prison companies with which they previously contracted.

CdeBaca lives across the street from a halfway house. As a child, she waited for her bus outside a halfway house. As a member of Denver City Council, her district is home to three of the city’s 10 halfway houses. But her office has not heard complaints about them, she said.

“People didn’t even know that they existed,” she said.

The zoning changes in Denver come as the city’s community corrections division grapples with a loss of funding due to the drop in the number of beds in the city. Before August 2019, the city had approximately 750 beds across 10 facilities, six of which were owned by prison corporations CoreCivic and GEO Group.

Since then, the city’s bed count has dropped to about 585 as GEO Group’s two facilities closed, including the sole women-only facility in the city. The city could lose hundreds more beds this summer if it doesn’t extend its contract with CoreCivic again or find replacement providers.

The state system, too, is prepping for what could be a massive slash to its budget as well as a proposed shift in how the programs are funded. Gov. Jared Polis’s proposed budget would cut the state’s community corrections budget by about 28%, said Joe Thome, director of the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice. Lawmakers are also discussing ways to provide money to programs with good outcomes in lieu of the current system paid based on the number of beds.

About 65% of people who begin a community corrections program in the state successfully complete it, state data shows, and about 1% fail the program because they commit a new crime. But within two years, approximately 45% of those people who successfully completed their community corrections program have been charged with another crime. The most common crimes that put people in halfway houses are controlled substances, assault, menacing, burglary or trespassing.

“The Office of Community Corrections has been working toward implementing performance-based contracting for several years,” Thome said. “Under the state’s current budget situation and current community corrections funding system, we would not be able to continue progress towards that goal without changes.”

The future of halfway houses in Denver is a greater number of smaller-capacity facilities that do not feel like sterilized institutions, CdeBaca and Mauro said. Placing those facilities near jobs, transit stations and stores will help people living in the halfway houses stay close to the resources they need to transition successfully back into the world.

“We just want to make sure there are fewer impediments,” Clifton said. “I want five women to live together in a house where they’re all working and it’s a sober living facility and they’re holding themselves accountable. I don’t want that to be a problem because of zoning.”

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