Great forum last night. The room was packed and it was well attended by community and people who work in the system. The concern that I have was echoed by Joel Dyer, the publisher of the weekly Ft. Collins independent news. We have been having these conversations for twenty years. What are we going to do about the issue, what action are we going to take?
The problems of increasing inmate populations and growing correctional system budgets could be alleviated by funding substance abuse and mental health programs, panelists said at an open forum Wednesday night.
While legislators have increased funding for such programs in the 2006-07 budget, more increases could be incorporated in the upcoming budget, said Rep. John Kefalas D-Fort Collins, who hosted the panel at the Fort Collins Main Library.
"We must put more resources up front for substance abuse and mental health programs and it has to be at a community level," Kefalas said.
In the 10-year period between June 1996 and June 2006, the inmate population grew at an annual rate of 6.6 percent from 11,577 inmates to 22,012 inmates, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections. That growth exceeds the Colorado population growth.
To prevent inmates going into the penile system and offenders winding back up in the system once released, officials say correctional systems need change in how they handle their inmates from day one.
"It falls to the system for dealing with mental illness," said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "Jails have become the number one delivery system for mental health in the country."
Approximately 16 percent to 20 percent of inmates suffer from severe mental illness and need help, said Laurie Stolen, detention program manager for the Larimer County Detention Center.
"The real question is why aren't they (programs) happening?" Stolen said. "I guess it comes down to the almighty dollar. We can't just automatically cut budgets to provide these programs."
Kefalas said that, by instituting programs to help inmates, funds could actually be saved from the correctional systems and put toward other programs.
Mike Corn, a Denver resident who drove up for the forum, agreed with Kefalas.
"We need to put (funds) into the rehabilitation systems instead of building more prisons," he said.