Colorado’s $318 million budget shortfall may succeed in accomplishing something that activists have been working to achieve for a decade — reform in the state’s criminal justice system. On Sept. 18, Gov. Bill Ritter announced a host of budget cuts, some of which pertain to state prison inmates and parolees. Most of the cuts will go into effect on Tuesday, Sept. 1.
The budget cuts include $263 million in targeted service cuts, the elimination of 270 full-time equivalent positions and a reduction of $48 million in cash-funded programs.
An estimated $18.9 million will be saved by letting parolees who’ve met the conditions of their parole off early and letting inmates who’ve demonstrated their readiness to be paroled out of prison early. Some of the savings will be utilized to give parolees enhanced and front-loaded services, such as help finding work and housing, in order to improve parolees’ success in transitioning to life outside prison.
These measures, far from being simply a way to cut corners on the Department of Corrections budget, were recommended by the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) and are part of Ritter’s anti-recidivism program.
“The cuts are going to actually enable us to implement some pretty rational policies about parole and how much time you spend in prison,” says Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, a member of the CCJJ. “I think the governor is actually embracing some pretty important changes in corrections philosophy.”
Levy says that cutting the budget for the Department of Corrections will help to protect strained social services from additional cuts.
“I think this is an opportunity to look at whether what we’ve been doing in Colorado is actually cost-effective and whether it’s fair to the people in Colorado who rely on mental health care and all the other parts of our budget that are being short-changed because we haven’t actually tried to apply evidence-based policies to corrections,” Levy says.
Currently in Colorado, one in 29 people are in prison, on parole or on probation, a figure higher than the national rate of 1 in 31. In 1982, that figure in Colorado was 1 in 102.
In 1999, the Colorado Department of Corrections budget was just over $300 million. This year, it’s more than $760 million.
Levy attributes the dramatic increase not only to an effort by lawmakers to seem “tough on crime,” but also on “a basic lack of understanding of whether there’s any logical connection between the length of a sentence and public safety.”
“I think our philosophy has morphed from rehabilitation to just deterrence and incapacitation,” she says. “If someone has been bad, we remove them from society and make society safer for the duration of the sentence. But what we haven’t looked at is the end of the sentence. I think what people have done is basically ignored the fact that most people who go to prison are going to be released at some point. And given that they are, it’s in our best interests to make sure they know how to conform to the norms of society. What we’ve been doing instead is just locking them up and just forgetting about them till they’re about to come out. Public safety isn’t served.”
Levy says this isn’t about taking dangerous offenders and releasing them on society, but rather looking at individual parolees and inmates and moving those who qualify on to the next step in the rehabilitation process.
“They’ve either served their sentence, or they’ve met with their parole board and the parole board has determined that they’re a good risk for release on parole,” she says.
Rather than simply disgorging parolees and inmates, the new program would offer increased services during the first 18 months of a parolee’s life beyond bars.
“The services provided would be very intensive services — getting them housing, getting them jobs, making sure they’ve got the psychotropic medications that they may need, doing all of those things in a very intensive way so that they don’t have to be supervised on parole for five years,” Levy says. “You pretty much know whether somebody’s going to succeed or fail on parole in the first six to 12 months. So what you want to do is front-load the services and give them every chance of success.”
Christie Donner, director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC), has been working with legislators and policy-makers since 1999 to change the way Colorado handles incarceration and parole. Though Donner says Ritter’s changes represent “a tiny piece of the pie” of overall reform needed in Colorado, she is encouraged by Ritter’s decision.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Thursday, August 27, 2009