December 10, 2009
Author: Mike Krause
Republicans often claim to be the party of fiscal conservatism and limited government. But Republican lawmakers in Colorado show little enthusiasm for applying those principles to Colorado’s hugely expensive prison bureaucracy. So when sentencing reform bills pop up in the next legislative session, it will be an excellent opportunity for Republicans to show if they really are the party of fiscal discipline, or if they are going to leave the heavy lifting to the Democrat majority.
In 1985, the Colorado Legislature arbitrarily doubled the maximum penalties in Colorado’s presumptive sentencing range for all levels (and all types) of felony crimes. Colorado’s inmate population more than doubled in the next five years. It has more than doubled again since, growing at a rate significantly faster than the state’s overall population.
Along the way, lawmakers have continued to enact numerous new laws which have created new sentencing enhancements, and even new crimes, often with less than clear public safety benefit.
In a desperate effort to keep pace with the capacity demands of such unprecedented prison growth, successive legislatures and governors have pushed corrections spending over the last twenty years from less than 3 percent to nearly 9 percent of the state’s general fund, or from around $97 million to over $675 million of general fund appropriation.
That’s a more than 10 percent annual compound growth rate in prison spending. In other words, for decades now, “fiscal conservatives” have been eager and active participants in one of the most extreme spending sprees in state history.
Late in the 2009 legislative session, Democratic Senator John Morse of Colorado Springs introduced Senate Bill 286, which would have kept our current very tough sentences for violent and sex crimes, while re-writing a significant portion of Colorado’s criminal code. Morse was joined by a group of liberal and progressive Democrat sponsors and prime co-sponsors including Senator Morgan Carroll of Aurora and Representatives Claire Levy of Boulder and Mike Merrifield of Colorado Springs. Dozens of other Democrats signed on to the bill.
The Republican opposition was both unified and visceral. Senate minority leader Josh Penry of Grand Junction called SB 286 “radical” and “wrong.” Senator Scott Renfroe of Greeley said the bill “caves into crime.”
And Republicans did have a point. SB 286 was far too broad, and sought to reform far too many different types of criminal statutes at one time to be allowed to become law. While sentencing reform has the potential for significant long-term cost savings to taxpayers, there can also be unintended consequences to doing too much, too quickly and all at once.
But while Republican opposition to the broader bill was justifiable, Republican resistance to taking any responsibility for decades of run-away prison spending showed through when out of the forty-plus pages and numerous statutory changes in SB 286, Republicans apparently couldn’t find a single reform they were willing to publicly support.
SB 286 was eventually pulled by Morse and re-introduced as a “guideline” for the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) to use in taking up sentencing.
While lawmakers may not like it, their ability to significantly affect the long-term growth of the prison population, and thus the corrections budget (prison spending is caseload driven), is through their prerogative to write–and re-write–the state’s sentencing and parole laws and policies.
To that end, the CCJJ has been meeting all year with the mandate to make recommendations to the legislature for reform. In November, the CCJJ overwhelmingly approved a package of drug-law reform recommendations, and more recommendations are on the way.
As the minority party in the legislature, Republicans have the option of sitting back and using Democrat-sponsored sentencing and parole reform legislation as “soft on crime” attack ammunition. This may even be an effective strategy in firing up some portion of Republican-leaning voters that believe prison spending is somehow immune to the same fiscal scrutiny as the rest of the budget. If this is the case, then Republicans will hopefully lay out their own plan to continue paying for a hugely expensive corrections system that has been eating up an ever larger share of the state’s budget for decades–and is only going to continue to do so.
But for Republicans that want to establish a legitimate reputation as principled advocates of limited government and restrained state spending, the last thing they should allow is for a small band of Democrats to school them in the hard work and tough legislative choices necessary to bring some badly needed discipline to Colorado’s profligate prison spending.
This article originally appeared in the Huffpo Denver, December 10, 2009.