Colorado’s halfway houses receive millions in state funds every year despite poor outcomes

The Office of Community Corrections was directed to establish performance-based funding standards for facilities in 2014, but the changes could be years away

The Independence House Fillmore, located off Colfax Avenue in Denver, seen on April 19, 2020. The house is a transitional residential treatment facility for 40 adult men transitioning from incarceration to the community. The Independence House also manages two other community corrections facilities, also known as halfway houses, in the Denver metro area. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Colorado funnels tens of millions of dollars each year into residential community correction facilities — also called halfway houses — that aim to support people reentering society after involvement in the criminal justice system. But unlike other state-supported programs, Colorado’s halfway houses receive the same amount of funds regardless of how successful they are. 

“Right now we don’t have a specific metric of outcome that a program needs to meet in regards to successful completion, performance or recidivism or something like that,” said Katie Ruske, manager of Colorado’s Office of Community Corrections. “But we are moving in that direction.” 

In 2020, 8,379 people stayed in a residential halfway house in Colorado with a person on average staying for 237 days, according to state data. A person can find themselves in a halfway house if they are being diverted from jail or prison by a judge; finishing out their sentence before transitioning to the community; or fulfilling a requirement of their parole or probation. Participants are required to pay up to $17 per day and the facility receives state reimbursements of $47.46 per day for each bed that’s occupied.

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Conversations around tying state funding to performance outcomes for halfway houses have been pingponging throughout the state Legislature since 2014, when lawmakers directed the Department of Public Safety to develop a plan to do just that. In 2017, the Office of Community Corrections established new standards for facilities to follow, but they still weren’t tied to funding. 

The topic resurfaced in fall 2020, but was tabled due to the budgetary constraints brought on by the pandemic. Instead, lawmakers directed the OCC to compile a report by January 2022 that outlines how it will go about implementing performance-based standards for the state’s halfway houses to incentivize facilities to improve their outcomes. But it’s still unclear when the state will implement the changes, which actually don’t require legislative action to begin with.

“We’re not confident enough yet to give a date because we need to work out those details,” Ruske said. “But we are going to try to make that date within a really reasonable fiscal year timeframe, in the next, you know, few years.”

Success rates vary drastically

Statewide, 60% of diversion clients and 71% of transition clients successfully complete a community correction program in 2020, but about one-third of clients who completed their programs had new criminal filings within two years, according to a recent report by the advocacy group Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. 

The analysis — which looked at 29 community corrections programs located across 17 of the state’s 22 judicial districts — found that program completion rates varied widely from program to program, ranging from 43% to 78% for diversion clients and 58% to 100% for transition clients.

“And when you start drilling down to the program level specifics, you really start to see the nuance,” said Terri Hurst, policy coordinator for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

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For example, 38% of the 2,893 total diversion clients in 2020 failed out of a community corrections program for a technical violation or because they escaped, and 2% had a new criminal filing while in the program. While 60% of people successfully completed the program, only 41% had no new criminal filings after one year, and 29% within two years. 

Hurst said a lot of people fail out of program for technical violations such as missing curfew, even by a few minutes, or violating house policies around behaviors such as substance abuse. 

Ruske, with the state’s Office of Community Corrections, said that although the CCJRC’s report used data from OCC to produce the report, its focus on recidivism rates gives an incomplete picture of what success looks like for community corrections. The office is exploring the possibility of updating its recidivism definition to include only new felony convictions instead of any new criminal filing.

“When you look at the data for filings, many filings actually don’t result in a new conviction,” she added. “We like to say that recidivism is important, and we want our recidivism numbers to be better, we want our success rates and completions to be better, and we also want to think about other ways to look at success.” 

Ruske said the OCC is working to determine what metrics to use when implementing performance based standards for the state’s halfway houses. To do so, they contracted the Urban Institute to outline how to establish a different funding model for the state’s halfway houses.

Once the office presents the report to the Legislature in January 2022, lawmakers could decide to introduce legislation to move the process along, Ruske said. She added that there is nothing in state law that prohibits the office from transitioning to performance-based contracting right now. But, ideally, the office would prefer input from lawmakers and have the changes codified in state law.

“We’ll need to update all of our contracts from just a logistical standpoint and ensure that the funding is going to be there and available for us to be able to do this,” she said.

Majority of residential halfway houses privately run by five entities

Although Colorado originally intended for its community corrections programs to be community-based, there has been significant ownership consolidation among just a handful of providers in recent years. It’s a change that makes Hurst uneasy.

Of the 29 residential community correction facilities spread across the state, only five are locally managed. The remaining 24 are owned and operated by five private companies: Intervention Community Correction Services, a private nonprofit; CoreCivic, a for-profit private prison and detention company; ComCor Inc., a private nonprofit; Advantage Treatment Centers, a private for-profit company; and The GEO Group, a for-profit private prison company.

“I just don’t think they’re truly working with their community. And I feel like it’s a big component that’s missing from the puzzle,” Hurst said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the way that community corrections programs are currently paid for. There isn’t a lot of support to help clients once they complete the programs and or ensure that they’re getting connected with community resources that can help them be successful once they leave.”

Out of the 14 facilities that have below 60% program completion rates, 12 are privately run, according to the CCJRC report.

The report includes a list of action steps the state could take in anticipation of the 2022 legislative session, including forming an interim legislative committee to start drafting proposals; implementing performance improvement measures for programs with lower than 60% completion rates with potential loss of funding; and creating an ombudsman’s office to investigate client complaints, respond to concerns, and solicit suggestions for improvement.

Ruske said she doesn’t see an issue with the consolidation of halfway houses among private entities as long as they are meeting the state’s standards. “We will continue to take the stance of, especially moving into performance-based contracting, if you are meeting the standards and performing well, that’s what we care about,” she added.

But she added that the OCC only conducts formal audits to ensure that facilities are meeting the state’s standards every five years per state law. 

“So we do audit to those standards, and we can require a corrective action plan,” she added. “In our history, not in our recent history, but in our history as a program, there have been some that were functioning so poorly we have had to completely pull funding before. That is something that we can do. But again, usually that’s for very significant life and safety, public safety issues.”

Ruske said OCC also partners with local community correction boards that may want to put a sanction on a program. “They might say, ‘Please fix this or no new referrals,’ or you know something like that, that occasionally can happen,” she added.

Community-centered organization paves the way for a better system

For Sean Taylor, it’s not hard to envision a community corrections system in Colorado where people feel supported, uplifted and welcomed back into society after transitioning from the criminal justice system.  

As the deputy executive director for the Second Chance Center in Aurora, a reentry nonprofit organization that helps people land on their feet after being incarcerated, Taylor has been doing just that for years. 

“We’ll buy your clothes, we will give you food, we will find a place for you to live, we will help you find a job,” he said. “We will do absolutely everything that you need to make certain that you never go back to incarceration.”

Their community-centered model focused on care and restorative justice is what Taylor hopes the state’s decades-old community correction system evolves into.

He said the best way to improve the state’s outcomes when it comes to community corrections is to partner with the community organizations that are already doing the work. He wants more of what he refers to as “care managers” opposed to “case managers.”

“(Care managers) want to see this person succeed,” he said. “They want to make certain that this person learns many different skills and blossoms and grows.”

“So that when you send them out and they come back with an ugly ass car, but everything is legal … and they’re just so proud to say, ‘Hey guys, look what I got.’ That’s what it’s all about. And community corrections can do that as long as they partner with the right people.”

He said the conditions in the state’s halfway houses have improved in recent years, but that there is still a ways to go in order to fulfill their mission.

“It needs to go back to everything that has to do with caring about the people who are there, and how they transition out, as opposed to, money, money, money, money,” Taylor said. “Because if it’s just about money, it shows. It shows in several different ways.”

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