June 2005

The impacts of closing Community Corrections

By David Grant Long

Convicted felon Dave Dressel readily admits he made a bad mistake, and he is working hard now to pay for it. A former painting contractor in Cortez, Dressel, now 32, pleaded guilty nearly three years ago to manufacturing methamphetamine and received an eight-year prison sentence under a plea bargain.

“I got messed up in the drug thing for three months of my life because I was taking pain pills from a doctor here that he was prescribing (for a neck injury),” he said during a recent interview, “and I used meth to get off the pain pills because they were suffocating me.

“An employee of mine told me people use amphetamines to get off opiates because it's something that doesn’t have the withdrawal effect. I got a pamphlet that said, yes, they use amphetamines (this way), and I looked it up to make sure he was right.

“He knew how to make it and he showed me how to make it, and I used it to get off these opiates, which I thought was a decision that was best for my business and my family,” he said. “But it was a bad decision and I shouldn’t have done it – I’d never used meth before and didn't realize how powerful it was.”

His crime was considered severe, he explained, because he’d sometimes allowed his young daughter to be in his office while he was getting ready to cook the meth.

But after spending two years in a Cañon City prison and going through a drug-treatment program called the Therapeutic Community, he filed a motion to have his sentence reconsidered in district court.

“I’ve used all the things that are set in place by the system to correct this sort of problem,” he said, “and I’ve applied every one of those things to my life.”

The court obviously agreed, re-sentencing him earlier this year to serve the remainder of his time at Community Corrections in Cortez, the city where his wife and two children still live.

Operated by the Montezuma County Sheriff's Office, the ComCor program has been an alternative to prison that allows inmates to leave during the day to work. This enabled them to partially re-enter into the community and at the same time earn money to pay at least part of the cost of their incarceration.

Dressel currently has a job doing residential construction for a local builder.

“I've told my kids I'm home and my wife has reconciled with me – I’ve got all these opportunities in jobs and a chance to become an architect and all those kinds of things that I’ve built by using the tools that I was given from the TC program and the correctional system.”

But unless he can get re-sentenced yet again — this time to probation — Dressel's rehabilitation among the people he wronged will soon come to an end, because Community Corrections is closing on June 15.

Most of the inmates will be transferred to other ComCor facilities around the state, depending on whether space is available in any of them. Dressel hopes to be able to stay in Cortez and continue the progress he's made so far.

“Now that I'm ready to apply it and have the community support to vouch for me, I want to be able to prove this,” Dressel said. “There are 35 or 40 people who are willing to come to court — my wife, my kids, reputable business people in this town — especially the part of the community I affected.”

He said he isn’t expecting special treatment, but he believes that inmates who work hard to rehabilitate themselves are better off in an environment where they have support.

“When you come back . . . and apply the tools that you’ve learned from the state and you tell your kids you’re home and build that momentum up, and then all of a sudden the rug is taken out from under you — I believe that's a unique situation, and a situation that there needs to be consideration towards.”

He said intensive probation wouldn’t be all that different from the ComCor program.

“The only thing I’m doing different is that I’m sleeping at the ComCor as opposed to sleeping at home,” he said. “I'm not asking for slack because I don’t think my sentence was fair or anything like that,” he added. “I’m asking for something because of this situation — the closing down of ComCor.”

One possibility is that Dressel and six other local ComCor clients will be transferred to similar facilities in other parts of the state, such as Alamosa, Montrose or Delta.

They could also theoretically be sent to prison, which would contradict the whole reason for having the program in the first place.

Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace said although closing ComCor is unfortunate, the county simply can’t afford to keep the facility open for their benefit, since the cost is outstripping revenue from the fees paid by inmates and the state, and none of the private companies that looked at taking over the facility could come to terms with the county commissioners.

He said ComCor’s shortfall was about $150,000 last year and would have run about $260,000 this year if the program had been kept open. The state pays about $40 a day for each ComCor client, and the clients pay $17 a day, but with an average of only 14 clients living there and 16 employees, the facility has been getting further and further in the red, Wallace explained.

The closure doesn’t mean people who qualify for the program will automatically be sent to prison, however.

“The county’s had Community Corrections for a lot of years,” Wallace explained. “Before the (ComCor) facility opened in 2001, it was more of a passthrough system where the ComCor board would find beds for these people in other facilities - whether Hilltop in Durango or the San Luis Valley (ComCor) over in Alamosa. The money would come from the state and it would be passed right through — the same amount — over to those facilities.

“So it's kind of going to go back to that same system.” In 2000, county residents approved a ballot question that increased sales tax by about a half-penny to build a new jail with the understanding the overcrowded old jail in the Justice Building would be converted to a Community Corrections facility as well as a detox unit, which will also close. Wallace doesn't believe any ComCor facility will re-open in the county in the foreseeable future.

“It's going to be very. very tough,” he said. “The state would have to say, ‘We’re willing to commit 30 clients to your program and the funding that goes along with that.’

“Whether it be the sheriff's office or a non-profit or another organization that would run it, I think then it might be worthwhile,” he said, “but without that in place, and the state being very reluctant to send people, I really don’t have a lot of faith that it will come back to what it was.”

Wallace said the ComCor part of the building, which has numerous monitoring cameras, will instead be used to store evidence in a secure enviroment. The work-release program for people convicted of misdemeanors will still operate out of the jail, he added.

Twenty-second Judicial District Attorney Jim Wilson said the closing of ComCor leaves him with one fewer sentencing option.

“Am I going to miss it? You bet I am,” Wilson said. “It's not just a case of, if somebody gets convicted, they either get thrown in prison or they get put on probation — it's not that simple. Sentencing is very much finetuned to the case and the individual, and this is one less resource.”

While 90 percent of people convicted of felonies are put on probation, Wilson explained, those in ComCor are not considered eligible for that sentence because of the seriousness of their crimes.

“It's a valuable tool that we use,” Wilson said. “The way Community Corrections works is that a person goes there as a last resort before going to prison. They've kind of got one foot in prison and the other one is potentially sliding that way unless they are really, really on board and straightening up."

He added that, when there isn't a local Community Corrections, the other areas with facilities don't have to accept other clients. “In addition to which, if we do put them there, then potentially it costs our judicial district money.”

The current inmates who were sentenced to ComCor by the district court here — including Dressel — will have to go before the district judge to readdress their sentences.

“It's an unusual situation,” Wilson said. “They were sentenced to Community Corrections, and if they were to violate (its policy) they would go directly to prison.

“Now the situation we're in is they haven't violated it, but they don’t have that option available any more,” he said, “so (the court) is actually going to have to reconsider sentencing — not just for Dressel, but for each and every one of them.”

Wilson said he didn't know exactly how long this process would take, and the ComCor clients may have to spend time in the county jail waiting for a resolution, which will be based on the information provided by his office and the probation office, with the judge having the final say.

“I know they're not going to drag their feet too long —- they'll take care of it sooner rather than later,” he said. “It's just going to add to my workload over in this office.”

Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane said he also wishes ComCor could have found a way to stay open.

“I really hate to see it close, because it was a good program,” Lane said. “I think it gave us some sentencing alternatives, but also it was a pretty productive program and gave people a new start.”