Gov. Bill Ritter used a joint meeting with the 27-member Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice on Thursday to announce his plan to save $380 million in skyrocketing prison costs over the next five years.
His proposed 2009-10 crime prevention and recidivism package, which carries a one-year price tag of $10.6 million, is part of his fiscal year 2009-10 budget proposal. It will be submitted this weekend to the legislature's Joint Budget Committee.
Done right, the governor said, Colorado could eliminate the planned 2,061-bed expansion of the Trinidad Correctional Facility. Its projected cost, $336 million, is included in the governor's projected savings.
The governor's plan would emphasize prevention services for youth, non-prison programs for non-violent offenders, substance-abuse treatment and offender education.
Ritter also praised the crime panel, which, in turn, presented Ritter with its own 10 months' of work embodied in a preliminary set of 66 recommendations on how to cut costs. The final report is expected in December.
Ritter, a former prosecutor, assured the panel that this was a cooperative effort and details of the two plans could mesh. His own package "doesn't take the place of your work ... this is a dynamic conversation," Ritter told the gathering of more than 100 people, including commission members, corrections experts and elected officials.
The key to reducing costs, Ritter said, is reducing recidivism — repeat offenders. The bad news is that adult recidivism increased from 50 to 53 percent in roughly the last three years. Ritter said that reducing recidivism would cost money at first, but ultimately save more.
"It's important for us to get this right," he said. In a stormy economy, when taxpayers are stressed and revenue numbers are difficult to project, it's important "to be prudent, frugal and responsible with taxpayer money."
Ritter acknowledged that for taxpayers and the public, "there's a great deal of nervousness when people in public office begin talking about public safety issues ... you have to understand public safety will remain the paramount concern."
Ritter also gave some opinions on the commission's preliminary recommendations, saying, "I affirm the direction you've taken," and singled out several reforms he agreed with.
The area of technical violations needs reform, he said, noting that many felons return to prison not because they commit new crimes but because they technically violate their probation. He agreed such breaches could be dealt, for example, with jail days, "not always the sledgehammer of a prison bed."
He agreed there should be a comprehensive review of the "overworked" parole system.
He also cited behavioral issues as a needed reform, given that 78 percent of inmates have substance abuse problems and nearly 29 percent have mental health issues.
He also liked the idea of offering inmates opportunities for higher education, subject to "fiscal realities."
He was far less enthusiastic about the commission's recommendation to increase "earned time," which would let inmates out early who had earned it in some way, such as by demonstrating good behavior or reaching an educational goal.
From his experience as a prosecutor, Ritter said, he knew that idea was controversial. "The devil will absolutely be in the details and we'll have to wait for those devils — those details — to emerge," Ritter said, to laughter.
Rocky Mountain News