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How will Colorado pay for the coming prison boom?

Opinion Editorial
August 6, 2007

By  Mike Krause

This year the legislature created the Colorado Criminal and Juvenile Justice Commission, tasked with examining the state’s sentencing structure and making recommendations to the legislature to address the ever-increasing prison population.

But if lawmakers lack the will to actually act on sentencing, then the commission will be largely irrelevant, and Colorado taxpayers will be on the hook for a long-term–and hugely expensive–prison expansion project.

Colorado’s current prison population is over 22,500 inmates and all available prison capacity is full. In 2006, there were just over 10,000 admissions and just under 9,000 releases from Colorado prisons. So Colorado had a net gain of over a thousand inmates. This in turn requires Colorado to build, lease or otherwise find and pay for a thousand new beds to house them.

This is only going to continue. Prison population projections by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice and the Legislative Council Staff average out to around 29,000 inmates by 2012.

But even if the state started building today, by 2012 Colorado would be in the same position as now–prisons full and more needed– because expansion plans are only pacing, and not exceeding, prison population growth. In other words, if the legislature does nothing but appropriate more money, the 1,000-bed-per-year scenario simply continues as far as the eye can see.

It costs around $100,000 to build one new prison bed and another $28,000 in annual operations money. So Colorado is looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending for prisons.

Some 20 years ago, prison spending was less than 3 percent of the state budget. This year, corrections are slightly less than 9 percent of General Fund spending.
This dramatic increase in spending reflects the astonishing growth in the prison population, according to the Department of Correction’s Fiscal Year 2006 Statistical Report, “The [Jurisdictional prison] population has increased 498% since 1985 when the population was 3,586.”

Given all of this, the mandate of the new commission might seem overwhelming. But the fact is that where to begin looking is not terribly difficult.

Of those 10,000 admissions to prison last year, over 2,700 (or more than 28 percent of total admissions) were returns to prison on technical violations from parole, community corrections and probation, with the overwhelming majority being parole revocations. In other words, all of last year’s net prison growth, and then some, can be attributed to people being sent back to prison…a massive failure on the part of the state in getting people from prison to parole and then on to becoming tax payers rather than tax consumers.

Moreover, of the more than 7,000 new court commitments to prison in 2006, over 1,500 (or over 22% of new commitments) were for drug offenses, which the Department of Corrections (DOC) classifies as “non violent” offenses. Drug offenders are by far the single largest category of inmate at over 17 percent of the total prison population. For women it is even larger, drug offenders are over 27 percent of the female population.

Nor will the commission lack sources for suggestions. People like Christie Donner of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (www.ccjrc.org) have been talking, in detail, about run-away prison spending and prison population growth for over a decade, and the Colorado Bar Association has launched a Criminal Sentencing Project that includes judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers, yet another potential resource for the commission (disclosure: I am part of the Criminal Sentencing Project).

Whatever may come out of the commission, lawmakers could simply decide that spending of hundreds of millions of other people’s dollars is preferable to actually dealing with the ever-growing prison population.

And if this is the case, Colorado taxpayers may soon have to decide how much their taxes will go up, or which government services they are willing to give up, to pay for a prison building boom.

Originally appeared in the Denver Daily News.