Colorado authorities said they inadvertently released a sex offender from prison under a moneysaving early release initiative, prompting Republican lawmakers on Thursday to urge the state's Democratic governor to suspend the program.
Gov. Bill Ritter, a former Denver district attorney, has said that no sex offenders, kidnappers or killers would be released under the program, which officials hope will save $19 million as the state deals with a $318 million budget shortfall this year.
But the first round of prisoners released Sept. 22-23 included a man, 51-year-old Benn Joe Rael, who was convicted in a child sex-assault case in 1982 but was serving time for nonviolent theft, The Denver Post reported.
The parole board said it was unaware of the earlier conviction before the release, but chairman David Michaud told the Post that an evaluation determined that Rael's risk of committing another sex offense was low.
The release shows that the program isn't working, House Minority Leader Mike May said Thursday. Ritter should find other ways to save money that wouldn't put the public at risk, he said.
The Colorado Department of Corrections said 30 prisoners have been released through Sept. 30. The Post on Thursday reported details on the first 10 of those released. Of those 10, seven have been convicted of violent crimes, including three convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or assault and four convicted of felony violent crimes from robbery to vehicular assault.
Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry and former Republican congressman Scott McInnis — both of whom hope to challenge Ritter next year as the GOP's gubernatorial nominee — said the program needs to be shut down.
The odds are high that one or more of the first 10 prisoners released will reoffend, said McInnis, a former police officer. That would wipe out any savings, forcing taxpayers to prosecute them again and send them back to jail, he said.
"This policy is madness and it should be stopped immediately," Penry said.
Only inmates who are scheduled to be released within 180 days are eligible for early release, Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer said. The inmate with the previous sex assault conviction was set to be freed in 16 days when he was released, he said.
The fact that fewer inmates than expected are qualifying for release shows that officials are being careful, Dreyer said.
"It's a good program," he said. "It's good policy."
Colorado isn't the only state seeking to close budget gaps by releasing nonviolent, lower-level offenders.
Governors, legislators and prison officials in California, Ohio, New York and a number of other states have moved forward on similar policy changes this year after decades of tough-on-crime sentencing.
But Ritter — or any other governor — is taking a big political gamble in continuing early release programs, independent pollster Floyd Ciruli said.
If one of the released prisoners commits another crime, there will be inevitable comparisons to Willie Horton, who was serving a life term for murder in Massachusetts in the 1980s when he was granted a weekend furlough, Ciruli said.
Horton then robbed and raped a woman in Maryland. Republicans famously used the case in a 1988 television ad to criticize Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee. Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts when Horton was released.