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4000 is too many

Opinion Editorial
January 12, 2005

By Mike Krause

In 1984, Colorados adult prison population was less than 4,000 inmates.  As of October, 2004, including community corrections, but excluding county jails, parole and probation, the inmate population was over 19,800.  Moreover, in just the last decade, corrections spending has more than doubled to over $469.7 million in FY 03-04 and more than half a billion dollars has been appropriated for prison expansion and new prison constructionand it is still not enough.

If a more than 400 percent increase in incarceration resulted in an equal size reduction in violent and property crimes, this all would be justifiable.  This has not been the case.

The reason for this lack of correlation is decades of irrational sentencing policies for non-violent and consensual drug offenses. Since 1985, the percentage of Colorado prisoners locked up for drug offenses has quadrupled. Drug offenders now make up more than 20 percent of Colorados prison population. In FY 2003, over 1,500 drug offenders were committed to Colorado prisons, the single largest category of offender by far.

Also in 2003, the legislature authorized the construction of a new, 948-bed Colorado State Penitentiary II through a highly dubious debt-financing scheme, which is tied up in a lawsuit over its constitutionality. Even if CSP II is built, Colorado could immediately fill it beyond capacity with just one years worth of drug offenders.

Things are only going to get worse.  Prison population projections by both the Division of Criminal Justice Research Office and the Legislative Council Staff merge in 2009 to roughly 25,500 inmates. Colorados state prisons are already over-filled (109.8% of design capacity in 2003), creating both a dangerous situation for corrections personnel and a demand for more prisons. According to the Colorado Department of Corrections, Eight hundred twenty-eight additional beds were needed in 2003 to cover the difference between admissions and releases. Yet Colorado cant afford to build more prisons out of the general fund (thus the constitutionally questionable debt scheme).

In 1985, the Colorado legislature doubled the maximum penalty of the presumptive sentencing range for felony crimes. The result, as DOC describes it, The average length of stay projected for new commitments nearly tripled from 20 months in 1980, to a high of 57 months in 1989.  Colorados prison population quickly doubled by 1990, as did the percentage of prisoners whose most serious crime was a drug offense.

While longer sentences for certain classes of criminal are a fine idea, placing non-violent drug offenses, including sales/manufacture, in the same sentencing scheme as violent and property crimes makes no sense. It is an ongoing debate as to whether prison either deters crime or rehabilitates offenders, but it is unquestioned that prison incapacitates criminals.

In November, 2004, Denver police arrested a suspect known as the Raspy Robber, believed responsible for a long string of robberies and with a long criminal record.

Imprison one Raspy Robber and there is one less robber on the street.  There is no new potential robber simply waiting for a new robbery territory to open up, once the territorys current robber goes to prison.  The same holds true for pedophiles, serial rapists, burglars and other violent criminals.

But this is not true for drug crimes.  The imprisonment of one drug dealer (or even an entire network) only temporarily disrupts the flow of illegal drugs. As soon as one supplier is gone, another quickly moves in to take his place. Basic economic law of supply and demand says that as long as there is a demand for a product, a market will make that product available.

Using incarceration to try and halt the availability of drugs can only be achieved by imprisoning every drug user and addict (who constitute the majority of the small time dealers) and everyone willing to break the law in return for large financial rewards.(dealers in the upper levels of the drug world).

Having doubled in a decade, Colorados prison population could double again without achieving that goal. Excessive incarceration for drug offenses is the main reason for Colorados ever increasing prison population.  The taking in of more inmates than are released will be a continuing drain on the state budget.

One can be an advocate of illegal drugs remaining illegal, but still not advocate filling up the criminal justice systems most valuable assetprison beds, with non-violent drug offenders. The Legislature will not be able to seriously address the prison budget crisis without first addressing how drug offenses are prosecuted and punished.


The Independence Institute
13952 Denver West Parkway, Suite 400
Golden, CO 80401

INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.

JON CALDARA is the President of the Independence Institute.

MIKE KRAUSE is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute.

NOTHING WRITTEN here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as in attempt to influence any election or legislative action.

PERMISSION TO REPRINT this paper in whole or in part is hereby granted provided full credit is given to the Independence Institute.