We spent today at a CLE on the Sentencing Commission. It was attended by Rep. Roger Goodman from Washington state who has been the general architect of the sentencing reform policy that has been instituted there. Atty. Phil Cherner, Judge Ken Plotz, CCJRC's Christie Donner, Adams County DA Don Quick, DCJ's Jeanne Smith, and Rep. Terrance Carroll played to a packed house.
Colorado's prison population is exploding along with the state's corrections budget.
In 1997, the average daily population for the Colorado Department of Corrections was 12,205 inmates. In 2007, the daily population is averaging 22,424 - an 84 percent increase. In the last five years alone, the prison budget has grown 35 percent.
It's time for a change.
More taxpayer dollars have been pumped into building and expanding prisons in this state under the guise of public safety, even while state policies seem geared to keeping offenders behind bars longer. Far less money has been devoted to figuring out ways to prevent people from committing crimes in the first place, to providing mental health, drug and other treatment for offenders who need it and to keep criminals from returning to prison once they're set free.
We have high hopes for a new crime commission whose mission will be to conduct an in-depth review of the state's criminal justice system and to find ways to make it better and more cost-effective without building more prisons. The commission, created by the state legislature earlier this year, will hold its first meeting in late August or early September.
One of its top priorities should be to find a way to slow the growth of the Department of Corrections, which grew by 9 percent this fiscal year from last.
"That means other important projects are being shortchanged for DOC construction," said Peter Weir, executive director of the Department of Public Safety. The commission's work is not meant to sacrifice public safety or victims rights but to find ways to be smarter with the state's overall criminal justice resources, Weir said.
It sounds like a worthy goal.
Included in the commission's work will be a comprehensive review of the state's sentencing structures. The last such review was conducted in the 1970s. One of the things we have learned in recent years is that the state's high recidivism rate is due in part to parolees committing technical offenses, such as failing to report to their parole officer on time. That should not be a reason to clog a prison cell with an inmate who costs taxpayers nearly $28,000 a year.
The population of mentally ill inmates also has grown immensely while community-based programs for the mentally ill have lost funding. The commission needs to figure out a way to increase treatment programs for mentally ill offenders in prison while expanding community-based programs that could very well serve a crime-prevention role.
And to prevent ex-convicts from ending up back behind bars, the state should embrace education and other programs that help prisoners re-enter society, train for jobs and continue treatment.
The commission's recommendations will be debated by the legislature. Then lawmakers will have to figure out a way to pay for the programs.
Slowing the growth of the prison population and making offenders productive members of society when they get out will cost far less than building more prisons. But there needs to be some political leadership to make it happen.
The Denver Post