Remembering Tom Clements

The leader of Colorado’s prison system, who was killed last week, was a hero to communities that probably never knew his name.
by | March 25, 2013 AT 3:00 PM

Ten years ago, I was called to the Missouri governor's office to meet with the chief of staff. The meeting included me, Ken Miller, the Department of Corrections director and his deputy. The topic: closing prisons. Like most states, Missouri’s prisons are funded almost completely through state revenues, and the state was out of money. It needed $12 million and wanted to discuss the implications of closing two prisons.

At the time, nearly every prison was already dangerously overcrowded and the idea of closing two was grim. It would mean an economic hit to two communities; it would mean a strain on all the remaining prisons; and it would mean letting a lot of the bad guys out early. It was lose-lose for everyone -- unless you’re a bad guy in prison about to be freed. The state was essentially forced to save $10 million to $12 million by the end of its budget year or be prepared to close two prisons. Either option would include population control, and that's where Ken and I were asked to help out.

We formed a team of corrections experts with the help of over 150 professionals from mental health, drug rehabilitation, social services, law enforcement, city and county jails, job placement, legal and education fields. We split them into working groups, locked them in a ballroom near the state Capitol, and asked them a simple question: "Why are prison populations growing?"

One by one, they reported "not us." The increase in arrests didn’t mirror the increase in prisoners. Sentencing had been steady for years. Parolee violations weren’t on the rise, and drug treatment and education weren’t the culprit either. One by one, each workgroup concluded that prison populations could be better, but we're not the reason for their growth.

Then the last group stood up, came clean, and said “It’s us.” The parole board shared a massive backlog of cases they had yet to hear and said that it could take years for prisoners to be paroled after they become eligible. And their backlog was only getting worse. If they could magically hear all the cases that day, they said they’d have beds to spare -- enough to close a prison … or two.

Representing the parole board was Tom Clements. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he was in the headlines last week after being gunned down in his Colorado home. Before he was selected to head the Colorado prison system, he was the director of adult institutions in Missouri. He was the kind of public servant that got it. He cared deeply about the people he worked with and the people he worked for. He wanted success for those around him, including the offenders housed in the prisons he oversaw.

I don't know the events that led up to his murder. But I do know that when we worked together, he almost always had a smile and was the kind of guy you just liked being around. I also know he was the kind of public servant that worked hard to see things get better. No more so than when we were working on the population team and he realized we had found the bottleneck.

Tom, along with a team of his colleagues, spent the next month exploring how to untwist the pipe of the parole board. We reviewed laws, discussed options and debated public safety until way past normal business hours until we formed a game plan.

In the months that followed, Tom was instrumental in implementing the changes that reversed the state’s prison population trends, returned well over the $12 million needed, and saved the jobs of hundreds of correction officers. He was a hero to communities that probably never knew his name or how close they came to losing a major economic boost to their area. He kept Missourians safer by working to assure only those who were ready for release were released and by helping those in custody get the services they needed to better their chances when they returned to local communities.

Tom was taken from public service way too soon and in the most gruesome of ways. I cannot fathom the grief his wife and daughters are dealing with, and though we haven't spoken since he left Missouri a couple years ago, I find myself missing his enthusiasm and optimism. Luckily, I am reminded of his legacy every time I drive by his old office or by the state prison near my town or read a success story about an ex-offender who has turned their life around or when a leader is brave enough to stand up in front of 150 of their peers and say, "It's us. And we want to fix it."