The Denver Post
Colorado's prison population is falling so quickly that state officials are once again considering closing prisons — a tough discussion given that prisons are often big employers in the counties where they are located.
"It looks like the whole system should be shrinking," said state Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, at a recent legislative hearing where Joint Budget Committee members discussed the decline in inmates and a consultant's ongoing study of which prisons should be closed or repurposed.
The study is due June 30.
In December, there were 2,109 empty beds in prisons across Colorado. Most were in private prisons, and the state is no longer paying for the space.
Budget and criminal-justice statisticians predict the number of unoccupied beds will rise to between 2,600 and 3,600 by June 2014.
Eliminating that much capacity could shut down two to 10 prisons, depending on the size of the facilities.
Colorado is already at 7,500 fewer inmates than it once expected in 2013 and has closed three state prisons.
"We think that is a really, really big deal," said Roxane White, chief of staff to Gov. John Hickenlooper, referring to both the continuing decline in prisoners and the prospect of saving money with further prison closures.
The choice of which prisons to close is complicated, state corrections officials and legislators say. The state must still have a mix of minimum- to maximum-security facilities. Some prisons are designed to use fewer guards, which reduces operating costs. It's not generally easy for prison staff to move from one city to another. Maintenance and energy use vary from prison to prison. Colorado, for example, still operates two prisons that opened more than a century ago.
"We are wrestling with what beds do we not need," Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements told a legislative committee recently.
The decline in prisoners is good news for the state, which saves tens of millions of dollars in the cost of housing them. But closing prisons can be bad news for the small towns that rely on them for jobs. Olney Springs in southeastern Colorado, for example, has a population of less than 400. A private prison there has room for 1,700 inmates.
"Unfortunately, a lot of those smaller communities were sold a bill of goods about (how) this is going to be good for your community — and it did create an economic boom for them," said Douglas Wilson, the state's chief public defender. "But now with the populations going down, I think the legislature's going to have to make some tough decisions about if they close, and if so, where do they close the prisons."
Experts point to a mix of reasons for the decline in prison population — including fewer prosecutions and changes in the way the prison system is run.
The state's felony crime rate dropped by a third from 2002 to 2011, Clements said. Possible reasons for that include reductions in punishment for marijuana-related crimes, successes of youth and gang-intervention programs, and an aging population that has resulted in fewer young people getting in trouble.
In addition, Clements, who became the state's corrections chief under Hickenlooper, brought a very different attitude from his predecessors, Wilson said. Parole and probation officers are giving second chances for minor infringements, like a single failed drug test or failure to show up for an appointment. Those offenders are not being sent back to prison.
A new state law also allows prisoners to earn more time off their sentences for good behavior, Clements said. Another new law lowered the penalties for minor drug possession, Wilson said. There is no longer a 24-year sentence for a parolee who walks away from his registered address at a homeless shelter.
The savings to Colorado taxpayers will vary significantly with the state's choices on what to cut. Not sending an inmate to a private prison saves the state about $20,000 a year. Closing the Fort Lyon prison in Las Animas saved nearly $27,000 per inmate. Shutting down one wing at the Trinidad prison has saved $5,800 per prisoner.
White told a health conference six weeks ago in Denver that the governor hopes to move the prison savings into health care, including better care in prisons. That might reduce prison population further, as a third of Colorado's inmates have mental illnesses.
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.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
The Denver Post