Tragic Murder of Colorado Corrections Chief

April 8, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-04-07 at 8.24.03 PMIt’s been hard to follow the horrific story coming out of Colorado over the past weeks. The Colorado Corrections Chief Tom Clements was murdered outside of his home, by Evan Ebel, a recently released state prison parolee ( see Denver Post article, March 31, 2013)

The story is complicated and continues to evolve, with the arrest of a white supremacist prison ringleader for questioning. But rather than review the evidence relating to the homicide, this might be a good time to look at the possible causes, problems and consequences of the murder of Tom Clements (image at left; Lisa Clements, the widow of Tom Clements, speaks at his public memorial at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, on March 25)

This story id not going away, Governor Hickenlooper has just announced a sweeping review of the state’s prison and parole operations, along with a request of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to investigate parole procedures in Colorado. These are, in fact, appropriate steps to be taken after the shocking murder of the Corrections Chief. But even in this incredibly horrific example of parole gone wrong, there are important lessons to be learned. and they go beyond some of the claims that parolee Ebel was erroneously released four years early on a twelve year term.

I’m not convinced that there was an actual clerical error involved in this case. Apparently the judge did not state that the sentences should run consecutive, so the clerk indicated they would run concurrent (the same time credited for two different sentences). Many states consider that kind of judicial mistake (after all it was the judge who failed to state the offenses were to run consecutive), to be an act of clemency and run the sentences concurrent as a matter of law. But really this is just one of a number of red herrings in this case.

Evan Ebel was seriously mentally ill. He had spent his last two years in prison in administrative segregation (read solitary). He was released directly from solitary onto the streets of Denver with no special preparation, or even half-way house residency. He was a time bomb ready to explode. It most likely would have happened, but with another victim under other circumstances.

Remember few prisoners spend their lives in prison. In Ebel’s case, he was sentenced to an eight year prison term and had four years tacked on for assaulting a prison officer. Prison officials had plenty of notice that Ebel would be reentering society. Everyone in contact with him must have known it was not going to be easily accomplished. But there was an opportunity to prepare for it.

It may be that Evan Ebel was one of those persons who will be horribly violent no matter what is done to prevent it. But there is no information that he received any special prison supervision (except for 2 years of Solitary) as he approached release or when he was released into the community under the supervision of parole officials (though there were apparently therapeutic conditions for parole).

This is one of those occasions when one particularly horrible crime can destroy the momentum toward prison and parole reform. Stop all reform because there has been a horrible crime. To few consider that there are horrible crimes committed whether we release some offenders early and/or apply alternatives to prison to others. In Colorado, the statistics suggest that prison reform was working. Crime has plunged by 30% over the past four years, but that fact is likely to be buried in the lamentations over this terrible crime. The irony of the matter is that Tom Clements was the leader in efforts to reform the corrections system and reduce the number of prisoners in Colorado prisons.

There will likely be many scape goats in this story before it goes away; from prison officials to  mental health counselors , judges, to court clerks,  parole officials to parole officers, and on up to the governor. It may be best to remember that there will be horrible crime that we cannot prevent, and that ultimately it is society’s job to reduce those crimes to an absolute minimum, but we won’t ever be able to stop them all. And that locking people up for longer and longer prison terms, or keeping them in solitary confinement for long periods is a fool’s answer to a very complex problem.


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