Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

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, April 27, 2014

Why are Denver's jails still crowded?

The Denver Post

Nine years ago Denver voters approved a $378 million bond package that upgraded the city's antiquated, unsafe and crowded criminal justice facilities — a project that brought new structures and modern touches but strangely did not solve a glaring problem.
The jails are still crowded.
After a net gain of 864 beds from the bond project, the city is now looking at spending millions more to build more jail space or hire more jail staff.
Though Denver has implemented numerous diversion programs to keep people out of jail and crime rates have fallen, the city's jails continue to fill.
By next year, officials say, the jails could be overcrowded once again.
"That surprises me," said James Mejia, who was the justice center's project manager at the time. "We had projections that it would be a couple more decades before the facilities would be full. ... I am saddened to hear that if that is the case."
In a strange conundrum, jail bookings have decreased but the jail population has increased. Inmates are simply staying in jail longer.
Felony filings have increased 30 percent since 2010 to nearly 6,500 filings in 2013. Those cases take longer to get to trial.
One day last week, nearly 40 percent of the jail's population was classified as "pre-trial felons," according to the sheriff's department.
One reason for the recent uptick in felony cases may be rooted in technology.
In recent years, the city has upgraded its fingerprint and DNA detection systems, and in July of last year opened a new, $28 million crime lab. Those programs immediately struck gold.
In one year, police say, there has been a 42 percent increase in forensic leads on fingerprints and a 129 percent increase on DNA-related leads.
"Our hits are going through the roof," said Denver Police Commander Matt Murray. "People who go in on a traffic warrant are getting arrested on felonies when they get a hit (from their fingerprints) on a case. We are catching more people. But there is an unintended consequence. With an increase in this technology, you are putting more people in jail."
Last month Denver Sheriff Gary Wilson told City Council members if inmate trends continue, the jail's total rated capacity of 2,330 average daily inmates is expected to be exceeded by 2015.
Further, Wilson predicts that number could hit 2,512 by 2018.
Denver's jail facilities actually have more space that is not being used — two shuttered facilities at the Smith Road complex and an unfinished floor on a jail building constructed in 2012 with bond money.
If those buildings were opened, capacity at the county jail on Smith Road and the downtown detention center would total 2,698 beds.
To reopen the two shuttered and old facilities on Smith Road would add 368 more beds, but the sheriff's department would need to increase staffing by 51 people at an estimated cost of $3 million a year. That would likely be a budget item that would need City Council approval.
To finish the unfinished third floor on the new facility on Smith Road would add 128 new beds, but the city would need to spend an additional $6 million. A funding source has yet to be identified, but it would not come from the 2005 justice center bond. Those dollars have already been spent.
Why do we appear to be right back where we were in 2005 after spending hundreds of millions of dollars?
Wilson said plans were not short-sighted and taxpayers weren't fooled. But critics say the system is broken and the issue will never be solved by adding more jail space.
"The problem wasn't that the previous jail was too small," said Christie Donner, director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, who fought the 2005 vote for a new justice center. "There were significant problems of how we used jail beds. We still haven't solved those problems."
In the campaign of 2005, voters were told many things that didn't materialize.
They were promised a new downtown courthouse with 35 courtrooms. Instead, one with 29 courtrooms was built, with six courtrooms "shelled" for later use.
They were told a separate parking garage would be built with 451 public spaces. Instead, one was built with 233 public spaces.
They heard a new building would be constructed at the jail on Smith Road with room for 385 inmates. Instead, one was built for 256 inmates with the top floor delayed for possible later construction.
One promise that was kept is bringing the project in on budget. It's no wonder.
No question the bond that was approved by 56 percent of voters was necessary because the city had decrepit and dangerous facilities. But the campaign never suggested the jails would fill again 10 years after the election.
"If you build it, they will come," said Maureen Cain, policy director for Colorado Criminal Defense Bar Foundation.
Cain said many people in jail are on pre-trial holds because they cannot afford to pay bond amounts. A disproportionate number of those are minorities. A recent study of the jail population on one day last year found that 70 percent of the pre-trial detainees were minorities, she said.
They stay in jail awaiting their court appearances and then get probation when they are sentenced, said Donner.
"We put them in jail before they are convicted," she said. "Then after they are convicted, they are on community supervision. How much sense does that make?"
In 2005, the city created a 32-member Crime Prevention and Control Commission to work with criminal justice agencies on ways to reduce crime, cut recidivism and manage the jail population.
Statistics show the commission's work has paid off, reversing a 46-year trend of yearly population increases at Denver's jail.
Specifically, the commission has reduced the average daily jail population by 546 inmates a day through various programs, according to Regina Huerter, executive director of the commission.
Nearly 80,000 jail bed days were saved in 2013 by placing pre-trial inmates on electronic monitoring, according to the city's 2014 budget.
An estimated 94,300 jail bed days were saved due to the pre-trial supervision program that determines a defendant's eligibility to be released from jail before trial.
Other programs are worth noting.
The city stopped jailing people for failing to pay fines or failing to pay their RTD tickets. A sobriety court has reduced bed stays. And the city's Chrysalis Program has worked to get prostitutes off the streets and out of jail.
The city is about to launch a program that focuses on a "front-end user" population of 299 frequent fliers into the criminal justice system. They are generally homeless transients, mentally ill and addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Of those offenders, 299 accounted for 14,283 charges over a seven-year period.
Last year, the total criminal justice expenses for arresting, jailing and prosecuting 208 of those offenders was nearly $3 million. Each of them spent an average of 72 days in jail.
Their expenses aren't just for criminal justice interactions.
A total of 239 of those front-end users also were seen at Denver Health in 2012, visits that included detox, emergency room and psychiatric stays. Only a handful had health insurance. The total cost for health care was $8 million.
"They are an expensive group," Huerter said.
The city is creating a separate court process for the front-end users — flagging them when they are arrested and setting them up for a special program that will attempt to deal with their mental illnesses or addictions.
In sentencing, for example, front-end users could start treatment in jail or have an option to serve their time in the Fort Lyon Residential Treatment Center.
"It really is a population that we can catch," Huerter said. "We feel we can cut in half their total cost and reduce their likelihood of offending."
Denver County presiding judge John Marcucci, in his chambers recently, flipped through photos of prostitutes' mug shots. Their faces showed the destruction of life on the streets over time. He has photos on the wall of some of those women who went through the Chrysalis Program and are in recovery with their children in group home.
The judge's eyes misted over, fearing people will focus only on the increasing numbers of inmates and not understand the work he and others like Huerter and Sheriff Wilson have been doing to reduce the population.
"We are trying to make our system better and temper that with justice," Marcucci said. "We are doing everything we possibly can to make sure we have the right people in jail."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Man spends 16 years in solitary for a crime he did not commit

The United States Department of Justice -- Clemency Initiative

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole at the Press Conference Announcing the Clemency Initiative
Washington, D.C. ~ Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Good morning and thank you all for being here.  I am pleased to announce a Department of Justice initiative to encourage qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted, or reduced, by the President of the United States.
Last year, the Attorney General launched a new “Smart on Crime” initiative.  Smart on Crime was conceived with an eye toward addressing the crises caused by a vastly overcrowded prison population and with a goal of redirecting some of the dollars we spend on prisons to prosecutors and law enforcement agents working to keep our streets safer.  It is designed to strengthen the criminal justice system, promote public safety, and deliver on the promise of equal justice under law. 
In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced unfair disparities in sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine.  But the Fair Sentencing Act did not apply to those who were sentenced before its passage.  And now there are many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime – and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime.  The fundamental American concept, equal justice under law, requires that our laws be enforced fairly – and not just going forward, but it is equally important that we extend this fairness to those who are already serving prison sentences for their crimes.
Last December, President Obama took steps toward addressing this situation by granting commutations to eight men and women who had each served more than 15 years in prison for crack cocaine offenses.  For two of these individuals, it was the first conviction they’d ever received – yet, due to mandatory guidelines that were considered severe at the time, and are out of date today – they and four others had received life sentences.  Since that time, the President has indicated that he wants to be able to consider additional, similar applications for commutation of sentence, to restore a degree of fairness and proportionality for deserving individuals.  The Justice Department is committed to responding to the President’s directive by finding additional candidates who are similarly situated to those granted clemency last year, and recommending qualified applicants for reduced sentences.
We are launching this clemency initiative in order to quickly and effectively identify appropriate candidates, candidates who have a clean prison record, do not present a threat to public safety, and were sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed, and are no longer seen as appropriate.  While those sentenced prior to the Fair Sentencing Act may be the most obvious candidates, this initiative is not limited to crack offenders.  Rather, the initiative is open to candidates who meet six criteria:  they must be (1) inmates who are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today; (2) are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels; (3) have served at least 10 years of their sentence; (4) do not have a significant criminal history; (5) have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and (6) have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.
Identifying worthy candidates within our large prison population will be no easy feat. A good number of inmates will not meet the six criteria.  But we are dedicating significant time and resources to ensure that all potentially eligible petitions are reviewed and then processed quickly to ensure timely justice.
First, we have put in place an extensive screening mechanism.  Next week, the Bureau of Prisons is notifying all federal inmates of our initiative and providing them with these six criteria.  If an inmate believes he or she fits these six criteria, the Bureau of Prisons will provide them with an electronic survey to fill out that will allow Department lawyers to efficiently screen whether the petition merits further consideration.
Second, I am pleased to announce that all inmates who appear to meet these six criteria will be offered the assistance of an experienced pro bono attorney in preparing his or her application for clemency.  In January, I gave a speech to the New York State Bar Association in which I called upon private attorneys to volunteer to assist potential candidates in assembling commutation petitions – ones which provide a focused presentation of the information the Department and the President will consider – in order to meaningfully evaluate whether a petitioner qualifies under this initiative.  Since that time, dedicated and experienced criminal defense and nonprofit lawyers have responded to that call.  These numerous groups and individual attorneys, who are calling themselves Clemency Project 2014, will be working with inmates who appear to meet the six criteria and request the assistance of a lawyer.  I am very grateful for the work of these volunteers and am confident that their commitment and expertise will result in high-quality petitions that the Department of Justice will be able to process on a more efficient basis.
Third, the Department of Justice is detailing lawyers to the Pardon Attorney’s Office on a temporary basis to review applications for commutation submitted under this initiative.  These attorneys – importantly, to include those with experience as federal prosecutors – will provide the rigorous scrutiny that all clemency applications must undergo while providing the additional eyes necessary to review the numerous additional petitions that are invariably likely to be submitted.  In addition, we are taking the unusual step of working with the Federal Public Defender Service to try to get some of their attorneys detailed to the Pardon Attorney’s Office to support this initiative.  I will be personally involved in ensuring the Pardon Attorney’s office has the resources needed to make timely and effective recommendations to the President.
Fourth, once we have made a preliminary determination that a petition is worthy of serious consideration, we will consult with both the United States Attorney’s Office and the trial judge that handled the case to get their views on the propriety of granting the application.  
Finally, I want to thank Ron Rodgers for his service as the United States Pardon Attorney.  Over the past several years, Ron has performed admirably in what is a very tough job.  He has demonstrated dedication and integrity in his work on pardons and commutations.  In the tradition of Senior Executive Service attorneys in the Department, Ron has asked me to allow him to move on to another assignment within the Department.  I told him I would do that, but only after he helped with the transition to new leadership in the Pardon Attorney’s Office.  In that vein, I am pleased to announce that Deborah Leff will be coming in to lead the Pardon Attorney’s Office.   Debby has committed her career to the very basis of this initiative - achieving equal justice under law.  As Acting Senior Counselor for Access to Justice, her fundamental mission has been to help the justice system deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all.  She has worked to increase access to legal counsel and legal assistance for those who are unable to afford lawyers.  And, she has also been instrumental in the standing up of Clemency Project 2014.  Importantly, she is known in both the Department and the legal community as a dedicated advocate and public servant.  I am confident that she will do a wonderful job providing recommendations to me and the President on this initiative and on the clemency process going forward.
Let there be no mistake, this clemency initiative should not be understood to minimize the seriousness of our federal criminal law and is designed, first and foremost, with public safety in mind.  Even low-level offenders cause harm to people through their criminal actions, and many need to be incarcerated.  Our prosecutors and law enforcement agents worked diligently and honorably to collect evidence and charge these defendants, and then fairly and effectively obtained their convictions.  These defendants were properly held accountable for their criminal conduct.  However, some of them, simply because of the operation of sentencing laws on the books at the time, received substantial sentences that are disproportionate to what they would receive today.  Even the sentencing judges in many of these cases expressed regret at the time at having to impose such harsh sentences.  And several United States Attorneys are proactively providing names of individuals they believe should be part of this initiative.  Correcting these sentences is simply a matter of fairness that is fundamental to our principles at the Department, and is a commitment that all Department of Justice employees stand behind.
In the same vein, it is important to remember that commutations are not pardons.  They are not exonerations. They are not an expression of forgiveness.    Rather, as the President said, they are an “important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness.”  He noted that “many of [these individuals] would have already served their time and paid their debt to society” had they been sentenced under current law.  For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair.  These older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today's laws erode people’ s confidence in our criminal justice system.  I am confident that this initiative will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals - equal justice under law.

House Judiciary passes bill to limit solitary confinement for mentally ill

The Denver Post

The Colorado House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved a bill that would restrict prison officials from placing inmates in "long term" solitary confinement if they are mentally ill.
The bill, introduced following the slaying of prisons chief Tom Clements last year, already passed the Senate. Clements was killed by a parolee who spent several years in administrative segregation, also known as solitary.
The bill now goes to the House Appropriations Committee.
If the bill is enacted into law, the Colorado Department of Corrections would have 90 days to evaluate all offenders in solitary confinement.
If the department determines the offender is mentally ill, the state would have to move them to a step-down unit, a prison for the mentally ill or other housing.
Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said the bill is important for offenders in solitary confinement who are mentally ill, but he added that it will come with costs. According to the current amendment those costs will be about $1.6 million a year.
"Keeping mentally ill patients out of administrative segregation is crucial," agreed Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver. "But there is so much more to be done."
Kellie Wasko, deputy executive director of CDOC, said that 1,979 Colorado inmates, or about one in 10, have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness and of those 1,400 are in the general population.
The Senate bill is sponsored by Sens. Lucia Guzman D-Denver, and Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, and Rep. Joseph A. Salazar of Thornton.
"Warehousing prisoners with mental illness in long-term solitary confinement is a cruel, costly and unlawful practice that unnecessarily jeopardizes public safety," said Denise Maes, the American Civil Liberties Union's Colorado public policy director.
In testimony Maes said rehabilitation strategies are critical, because 97 percent of prisoners will be released into communities.
She said solitary confinement cells are a bit bigger than a king-size bed and offenders stay there more than 22 hours a day where they "sleep, eat and defecate — one lives their entire daily life in that cell."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Solitary Nation

Warning Extremely Graphic
With extraordinary access, award-winning producer and director Dan Edge takes you to the epicenter of the raging debate about prison reform. "Solitary Nation" offers an up-close, graphic look at a solitary confinement unit in Maine’s maximum-security prison with firsthand accounts from prisoners and staff whose lives are forever altered by this troubled system.