GOLDEN • David Michaud, chairman of the state Parole Board, said the guys he meets on the golf course tell him, "‘You're on the Parole Board? Good for you! Keep all those sons of bitches locked up!'"
"That's one attitude," said Michaud, a former Denver police chief. "But on the other hand, when I first started being a cop in 1963, there were two prisons. Now there's 29," and the state corrections budget is $700 million.
"Where does it end?" he asked. "Something's got to give."
Crime and punishment are big in Colorado.
In 1994, the state prison population was 9,622, according to state records, and corrections consumed 4 percent of the state's revenues. As of the end of March, the state's overallpopulation had grown by a third, but its prisoner tally had more than doubled, to 23,152. Their slice of the budget pie has swollen to 10 percent.
Lawmakers, corrections officials, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and advocates for victims as well as prisoners say the trend is economically and socially unsustainable. But there's no broad agreement about what to do.
Now the issue is in the hands of the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which has been tasked by the Legislature with coming up with a plan of action.
The commission, a 26-member group with representatives from all aspects of the criminal justice system, met in Golden Thursday and Friday, and the hot topic was "sentencing reform."
Supporters view the concept as making the punishment better fit the crime. Critics suspect it will amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card.
The commission is expected to take a hard look at the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders, who make up about a fifth of allprisoners, by far the largest chunk of the prison population. Also up for scrutiny will be technical parole violators - not those who commit another felony, but those who do something like skip a date with their parole officer. This group of nonviolent offenders makes up 10 percent of Colorado's inmates.
Shorter sentences are not without cost. If more people are getting out of prison, more people will be on parole, and that burden would fall on the Parole Board, which is currentlymanaging more than 11,000 former inmates.
Perhaps the most important, but least quantifiable, cost is to public safety if more convicts are returned to society only to commit more crimes.
Supporters of sentencing reform say they hope to minimize that risk by taking the savings from the reduced prisoner population and investing it in education and support programs to give former inmates a better chance of a productive life.
"Hopefully, it'll end up saving the state money," said state Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, author of the bill kick-starting the sentencing-review process. "Hopefully, it'll make the sentences more consistent. Hopefully, it will make the sentences more logical to the public and everybody else. Hopefully, it'll increase public safety. Hopefully it will increase bang for our DOC buck."
Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said some will support reduced sentences to free up money for other state priorities. "For every dollar we spend in corrections," she noted, "it's not going to highered (education), or it's not going to health care."
Others will come to sentencing review seeking a fairer system, or one that better prepares inmates for a successful return to society, she said. The common denominator, Roberts said, is "accepting the fact that what we're doing isn't working."