The number of Coloradans in prison has nearly tripled in 15 years, costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
The prison population stands at 22,424. That number, plus 9,567 parolees and 13,200 people in county jails, represents more than 1 percent of the state's adult population, according to statistics kept by the Colorado Department of Corrections and County Sheriffs of Colorado.
The Pew Center on the States last week reported that 2,319,258 Americans were in jail or prison at the start of 2008 - one out of every 99.1 adults. Whether per capita or in raw numbers, it's more than any other nation.
The study found that 8.8 percent of Colorado's general fund - $599 million - was spent on corrections in 2007, compared with the national average of 6.8 percent. Only Oregon, Florida and Vermont had higher percentages.
Like the nation at large, Colorado has seen an explosion in the prison population the past 15 years, as law officers have pushed for longer sentences.
"We're averaging 98 new inmates a month," said Colorado Department of Corrections spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti.
DOC needs to add the equivalent of one prison a year to the system, meaning that essentially "we're asking for more money all the time," she said.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers says the drop in the crime rate over the past 15 years proves that longer sentences are working, and so the cost of imprisoning more people for longer periods is money well spent.
"I don't think there's a lot of people in prison who don't belong there," said Suthers, who formerly headed Colorado's Department of Corrections.
Three quarters of prison inmates are behind bars for violent crimes or had a violent crime in their past, he said.
The drug dealers and drug users who make up most of the rest of the inmate population generally had three or four chances before a judge finally gave up and sentenced them to prison, Suthers said.
Critics point to the disparate number of minorities and poor people in prison, said Suthers.
"But the single most identifying characteristic is that seven out of 10 of these inmates never at any point in their lives lived with their natural father," he said. "We're paying a high price for the level of dysfunctional families we've had for decades."
Suthers said the other big factor in the burgeoning prison population is the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, starting 40 years ago.
The goal of treating them locally and making sure they stayed on their medications has failed, he said.
Differing sharply with Suthers is Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a nonprofit group dedicated to lowering the prison population.
She notes that Colorado ranks 49th in the nation in spending on substance-abuse treatment and is way down the list on mental health treatment as well.
The revolving door to prison won't slow until people who are incarcerated or at risk of being so are treated for their drug addiction and mental health problems, she said.
"There is a huge gaping hole" in Colorado's treatment programs, Donner said.
She said she's never talked to a politician or county sheriff who didn't agree with her that more money is needed for treatment.
"People say they agree but that still they have to spend more and more money on prisons because more and more people are being sent there.
"It's a Catch-22. We spend money on prisons instead of on higher education or mental health. How do you turn around the Titanic?"
Donner says the 50 percent recidivism rate - higher for those on mandatory parole and those with substance-abuse problems - proves the system is broken.
As an example, Donner related a recent experience at a halfway house as a young man was being released from the corrections system.
"He was supposed to have 30 days of medications as he was released," she said. "He is schizophrenic, had been off his medications for five days and was starting to hallucinate."
But he would have to wait at least a week to get into a mental health center, she said. "His case manager told him to 'man up.' "
Rocky Mountain News