bars within three years, according to the Department of Corrections.

Ritter's budget request for the next fiscal year would pump $5.9 million into programs aimed at reducing the number of returning inmates.

His budget request includes the lowest increase for prisons in years, instead tagging the money for higher education.

Department of Corrections Director Ari Zavaras said the extra money already is having an effect. Prisons have more money this year to provide medicine to mentally unstable inmates as they walk out the door, Zavaras said.

"Public safety will always be No. 1 as far as we're concerned," he said. "We will only do things that we're confident will not jeopardize public safety."

It takes two of the seven board members to grant discretionary parole for a nonviolent offender and four of the seven for a violent offender.

"It can be a risky business," said Michaud, appointed by Ritter to head the parole board in March. "We would all dread the day that we would release somebody early and they would go out and commit a horrible crime."

Shift to Democrats

Ritter appointed five of the current board members, all Democrats. The board, which had a Republican majority before Ritter took office, now has only one Republican member.

Prison spending in Colorado is a hot-button issue, but Ritter said the parole board should not consider that when weighing an early release.

"Prison overcrowding and prison budgets are not their concern," he said. "Their concern is who should be in prison."

But critics accuse Ritter of putting fiscal issues ahead of public safety.

"Government exists for a few reasons — one of the most important being to keep residents safe," said Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield. "If there are bad guys out there, we have to do what it takes to contain them and protect our homes and families."

Added Owens, a Republican, "I'm hoping that this new parole board is as concerned with public safety as I believe the parole board was that I appointed."