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Reducing Recidivism and Lowering Corrections Costs

Opinion Editorial
January 13, 2009

Author: Mike Krause

In Colorado, recidivism is defined as “a return to prison for either new criminal activity or technical violation of parole, probation or non-departmental community placement within three years of release.” Recidivism is also a major factor in the decades worth of massive growth in the state’s prison population that taxpayers are obligated to pay for.

In late 2008, the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice released more than 60 recommendations — both legislative and administrative — as part of an effort towards recidivism reduction (http://cdpsweb.state.co.us/cccjj/2008recommendations.html).

Ritter’s plan

Also in ’08, Gov. Ritter released his own recidivism reduction plan. In other words, lawmakers have an excellent opportunity this year to at least begin acting to lower recidivism rates, and start getting a handle on runaway prison spending in Colorado.

Colorado’s current adult prison population is just more than 23,000 inmates. In 2007, there were just more than 10,600 admissions and slightly more than 10,100 releases from state prisons, so Colorado had a net gain of around 500 inmates last year. According to the Colorado Department of Corrections’ (CDOC) fiscal year 2007 statistical report: “Five hundred fifteen additional beds were needed in 2007 to cover the difference between admissions and releases.”

This is actually an improvement from 2006 when Colorado had a net gain of more than 1,000 inmates. But even with this recent slowing of net growth, between 2001-2007 the number of beds needed per year has averaged more than 900, according to CDOC.

This constant need for new beds is only going to continue, as recent prison population projections by both the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice and the Legislative Council Staff estimate thousands more inmates by mid-2012.

Rising prison spending

Some 20 years ago, prison spending was less than 3 percent of the state budget. Last year, corrections spending was nearly 9 percent of general fund spending. CDOC’s budget request for fiscal year 2009-10 is more than $824 million, with nearly $740 million of that being general fund spending … a more than 9 percent increase from last year.

Moreover, it costs about $100,000 to build one new prison bed (and another $28,000 in annual operations money), so every year that Colorado needs to build hundreds of more beds means millions of dollars in new spending for prisons.

This dramatic increase in spending has been driven by astonishing prison population growth over the last several decades. Calling Colorado’s prison growth “unprecedented,” CDOC notes that the jurisdictional prison population has “increased 525 percent since 1985 when the population was 3,586.”

Simple formula

It is a fairly simple formula, but an increase in prison spending as a percentage of the state’s general fund necessarily means that other spending items have to decrease as a percentage of the general fund.

Of those 10,600 admissions to prison in ’07, more than 3,000 — more than 29 percent of total admissions — were returns to prison on technical violations (as opposed to conviction for a new crime) 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.

According to this year’s Joint Budget Committee staff budget briefing, “Although the costs associated with these technical parole violators is high, there are few guideline’s provided to parole officers to determining when an individual’s parole should be revoked for a technical violation.”

The briefing later notes that “staff was unable find any administrative regulations that attempted to limit the use of prison for technical parole violations.”

Large-scale failure

That technical parole revocations so significantly drive the need for more prison beds, and thus more prison spending, is a large-scale failure on the part of the state in getting people successfully from prison to parole and then on to becoming tax payers rather than tax consumers. This level of failure would simply be unacceptable in any other aspect of state government.

It is well past time to get a handle on prison spending in Colorado. Between the recommendations of the CCCJJ, and Ritter’s stated desire to reduce recidivism, Colorado lawmakers have an excellent opportunity to make some much needed changes to technical parole revocations.

Originally appeared in the Denver Daily News, Jan. 13, 2009.