Balancing Risk: Colorado Parole Board's Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

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This study examines the response of the Colorado Board of Parole to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To mitigate the spread of the virus within correctional facilities, it increased the parole grant rate, expedited case review, and utilized special needs and fast-track parole programs for non-routine releases. This response provided an opportunity to evaluate the Board’s decision-making processes and to investigate the role of early release mechanisms in reducing prison populations.

Several factors expedited early release including: pressure from the governor and legislature; board member’s sense of responsibility to safely release as many individuals as possible; and the availability of early release authority. Our findings show that to release more people, the Board slightly changed its release standards, placing less emphasis on risk scores but continuing to heavily emphasize readiness for release. The Board reverted to its previous release patterns a few months into the pandemic, highlighting the difficulty of reducing prison populations through back-end mechanisms.

Special needs and fast-track parole were the mechanisms used to promote early release. Special needs parole releases are typically people who have severe medical problems, long sentences, and serious commitment offenses. Targeting them in Colorado substantially decreased time served. The fast-track releases were mostly low risk people with shorter than average sentences. Targeting them had no effect on reducing time served. This demonstrates that early release mechanisms that target “safe bets” – that is, individuals who would have been released quickly through routine mechanisms are not an effective way to reduce prison populations.

We also discuss the importance of grant rate standards, suggesting that jurisdictions establish empirically based ranges contingent on risk and readiness composition of the release population. Future research should investigate how much parole grant rates can be increased without compromising public safety.

This study was conducted as part of a larger project which examined how state prison systems responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was generously supported and funded by Arnold Ventures. While we hope the findings from this study are useful to the parole board and funding partners, the views and opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the views of Arnold Ventures.

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Balancing Risk: Colorado Parole Board's Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Gerald Gaes, Julia Laskorunsky, Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, Balancing Risk: Colorado Parole Board's Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic (2023),