Crime continues to drop in most Colorado cities, with Westminster seeing the largest decline and Pueblo bucking the trend with a 15 percent increase in violent crime last year, according to FBI statistics released Monday.
But officials are concerned about a disturbing trend behind those numbers - the skyrocketing cost of incarceration and the high rate of repeat offenders who end up back in prison.
And some police chiefs worry that the slowing economy could cause crime to increase.
The lower crime figures are a "positive - for now," said state Rep. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, a member of the Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice.
But, he added, "We have to be concerned about whether they've plateaued and we've reached a point where we're not going to see a decline."
Lance Clem, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said the commission, established by a 2007 law, wants "to preserve the favorable crime rates that we've got but bring down the cost of incarceration because it's starting to eat up a bigger percentage of the budget."
He also said a slowing economy doesn't necessarily lead to more crime.
"The trends are not going in that direction," he said. "Our biggest worry isn't the economy. Our biggest worry is the cost of incarceration."
About 8 percent of the state budget is spent on prison and parole operations, and the share is expected to rise to about 12 percent in a few years, Carroll said.
The number of inmates, now at 23,300, has nearly doubled in the last decade, according to the Department of Corrections. And costs have soared.
In the 1988 fiscal year, $76 million of state money was budgeted for the Department of Corrections. In the current fiscal year, the department got more than $636 million (more than quadruple the 1988 amount, allowing for inflation), according to a February report done for the state.
"It's a huge deal for us - the amount of money that we spend on prisons and inmates," Carroll said.
Adding to that cost is the high rate of recidivism. About half of all prisoners end up back in prison within three years, according to the Department of Corrections.
Carroll said the state needs to reduce the repeat offender rate by improving rehabilitation, mental health and substance abuse programs, and other efforts.
Rocky Mountain News