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Colorado’s Prison Spending Meltdown

Opinion Editorial
January 18, 2006

Author: Mike Krause

While lawmakers are deciding how to spend the proceeds from Referendum C, another budgetary crisis is flying under the radar. Simply put, Colorado faces a prison spending meltdown, and as politically unpopular as it may be, it is no longer a question of whether the legislature should take up sentencing law reform, but rather what the scope of those reforms should be.

According to the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), all state-owned (male) prison beds are full, and the roughly 800 available private prison beds will be full by November of this year.

Projections by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice estimate more than 27,000 inmates by end of 2011. For that same period, the Legislative Council Staff projects over 29,000 inmates.

This is a problem, as the current prison population is a little over 21,000.

Split the difference and the State of Colorado needs to build, lease, or otherwise pay for more than 1,000 new prison beds every year for at least the next six years, and it will need to start this massive expansion… about six years ago.

No, seriously, according to CDOC’s 2004 statistical report, from 1998 to 2004, the number of prison beds needed to cover the difference between admissions and releases averaged more than 1,000 per year.

The FY 2005-06 General Fund appropriation for corrections was slightly more than $590 million, or about 8.6 percent of the state’s budget (twenty years ago corrections was less than three percent of the Colorado budget).

According to CDOC, just to keep pace with the projected 5-year growth, it needs an additional $180 million in operating dollars (including money for expected private prison beds) and more than $368 million in capital construction money for state facilities. This doesn’t include the future 956-bed Colorado State Penitentiary II, paid for with over $100 million in long term debt financing (so called certificates of participation) and which, according to CDOC, will be filled immediately upon completion in 2009.

That’s just the short-term fix. But where even this short term money will come from is a mystery. Ref C makes no mention of corrections spending.

In the longer term, things get worse. While taking no position, CDOC notes, “With current sentencing structures, the inmate populations are projected to continue to rise.”

In other words, if the legislature does nothing but appropriate more money, the 1,000 beds per year scenario goes as far as the eye can see.

So while lawmakers scramble to fill the short-term bed shortage, they should also be seeking out recommendations for specific statutory changes to start slowing the growth of CDOC’s caseload.

In 2004, 72 percent of the more than 5,500 court commitments to Colorado prisons were classified as non-violent crimes, and according to CDOC, the largest categories of these consisted of, “drugs, non-violent inchoate and escape/contraband offenses.” In fact, more people were committed to prison for escape/contraband in 2004 than for either theft or burglary.

In other words, substantive sentencing changes make for a tricky and careful business of trying to control spending, maintain public safety, and hold offenders accountable. Where to start looking is not terribly difficult.

So who should be part of this process? For starters, Colorado’s Sheriffs have a huge stake in this; it is their jails that are strained by holding CDOC’s backlog of inmates, a backlog that will likely only grow as the prison population increases. In addition, the Sheriffs are asked to hold technical parole violators while CDOC finds a place for them (In 2004, there were an astonishing 2,300 technical parole revocation returns to prison, yet another obvious place to look for reforms).

At the same time, the County Sheriffs of Colorado (CSOC) has been steadfastly opposed to any changes to the current, unsustainable, sentencing structure. It is time for them to come to the table.

At the other end are the prison reformers such as the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, and the Pendulum Foundation (which concentrates on the juvenile justice system). For years, as the prison spending meltdown has developed, these groups have been talking about the issue, but often their ideas are disregarded by Republicans based on political ideology, rather than the merits of what they have to say, and by Democrats fearful of being labeled “soft on crime.” Time at the table for reformers has also come.

And those with the most at stake are Colorado taxpayers, who will end up paying the massive prison spending bills coming down the road, whose time at the table never ends – and who always get stuck with the check.