Colorado Prisons Threaten State Budget

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Colorado Prisons Threaten to Wreak Havoc on State Budget
State Is National Leader in Prison Population Growth

In a report to be released on Sunday, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reveals that Colorado has the fourth fastest growing prison population in the nation. Colorado's runaway prison growth has resulted in funding increases for prisons which -- due to current budget shortfalls -- threaten other programs, particularly higher education and human services.

Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) Co-Director Stephen Raher responded to the report by saying, "Colorado's love affair with prisons is causing our criminal justice system to collapse under its own weight, and it is dragging the rest of the state with it." Raher went on to remark, "while the fiscal implications of prison growth threaten every Coloradan, this crisis is also about families and communities who have been devastated by the mass incarceration of citizens, particularly low-wage workers and people of color."

The report, "Prisoners in 2002" (part of BJS's annual series on incarcerated populations), finds that Colorado's prison population increased by 7.9% during 2002, higher than any other state except for Maine (11.3%), Rhode Island (8.6%) and Connecticut (7.9%). The national average population increase for 2002 was 2.4%. Colorado's 7.9% rise in 2002 is up from 3.7% growth during 2001.

The BJS report coincides with the annual statistical report from the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC), which was released earlier this month. The DOC report shows that half of the male prisoners in the state, and nearly three-quarters of female prisoners, are serving time for non-violent offenses. DOC data also states that over half of Colorado's prisoners are past their eligibility date for parole.

Drug offenses continue to be the most prevalent crime of conviction among prisoners -- 3,691 inmates were in prison for drug offenses on June 30, 2002. According to Colorado Senator Sue Windels, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, "with one in five Colorado prisoners serving time for a non-violent drug offense, it is clear that we need to reevaluate our priorities. If we strengthen our commitment to fund drug treatment and mental health services, we will not only save money in the long run, but we will also help countless individuals and families."

Colorado's increase in prison population comes at a time when the expense of prison expansion cannot be afforded. In the FY 2004 budget, the DOC is one of only three departments to receive increases in general fund appropriations. The other two areas receiving an increase are K-12 education (which is required to grow under Amendment 23) and Medicaid (which is largely controlled by federal formulas). By contrast, state colleges and universities have been hit with a 17% reduction, and public health funding was cut 11% (after adjustments for the pay date shift).

According to Jason Ziedenberg, Director of Policy and Research for the Justice Policy Institute (a national criminal justice think tank), other states have realized the folly of using prison as an all-purpose response to crime, and have evaluated and implemented alternative strategies. "Given the information in the BJS report," said Ziedenberg, "I would hope that Colorado policy makers will increase their focus on alternatives to incarceration. Other states have slowed or reversed the increases in their prison populations, Colorado should take notice."

"Everybody knows that next year's budget will be even more painful than this year's," added Raher, "prison spending is crowding out other programs such as health care, higher education, and human services -- this is a problem that truly impacts everyone in Colorado. The General Assembly cannot ignore this situation."

State Representative Terrance Carroll, a member of the House Judiciary Committee reinforced the notion that budget priorities need to be changed. "Over the past two decades," said Carroll, "Colorado has tried to fight crime by building more prisons at the expense of more effective crime reduction programs. This report shows that building more prisons does not equal less crime, but instead more inmates. Colorado needs more rational approaches to criminal justice, focused on rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. Sentencing laws, parole policies, and Department of Corrections' budget priorities should reflect this focus."

The Colorado Freedom