By THE VOICE OF AURORA Colorado’s current budget woes present a lot of difficult questions that must be resolved with what are sure to be even more difficult answers — all except for one.
The Aurora Sentinel
It’s unclear yet whether the state will face a relatively painless shortage of about $70 million next year in trying to fund an expected $7.8 billion in needs and services, or whether more dire projects are accurate and Colorado must find a way to trim more than $600 million from it’s budget.
Either way, anyone who’s spent much time watching the creation of the state’s “long bill,” which is the in essence the state’s annual budget, knows that what actually survives the cuts are only the most needed state services. While there may be some ways to squeeze some savings in line items by increasing productivity, for the most part, Colorado runs a lean system. It’s one that’s become too lean in many areas. The state seriously underfunds programs that save Colorado taxpayers in the long run, such as programs to educate Colorado’s poor children and ensure they are mentally and physically well. No study or analysis disputes that funding such programs prevents the government from spending more on those same children later in forms of other social services, corrections or myriad public assistance programs.
And one of the biggest recipients in the state budget for disregarding those tried and true facts is the Colorado Department of Corrections. If you haven’t given the state’s prison department much thought as news of the dismal economy and growing budget shortages hogs the headlines, you should.
Colorado’s prison system accounts for almost 10 percent of the state’s annual budget, a number that has been steadily growing for years. This year, your tax dollars are paying to keep about 24,000 men and women behind bars at the cost of nearly $30,000 a year each. Compare that with the $6,000 or so the state spends on each Colorado child to provide them with a public education.
Here’s the bad-news, good-news: almost half of these men and women are imprisoned because of drug habits, alcoholism, conspiracy or other non-violent offenses. We’re not suggesting that people don’t need to be policed and punished for violating laws, but study after study shows that by first preventing people from becoming mentally ill, drug addicts or alcoholics, taxpayers save big by having those future cell mates be productive, taxpaying citizens.
More to the point in Colorado right now, those non-violent offenders who are being housed in prisons mainly because of mental illness or drug problems are running up huge taxpayer tabs.
Certainly, Colorado will struggle by cutting into almost every aspect of the state budget. The state, however, will only benefit by reducing the number of people it must house each year in prisons.
State officials should look closely at finding treatment programs for those convicted solely of non-violent drug crimes and find inexpensive drug treatment programs for these people who could easily being paying taxes instead of being the recipient of them.