Budget cuts accelerate prison reform in Colorado
Associated Press Writer
DENVER, Colorado – Colorado officials plan the early release of 15 percent of inmates in state prisons to help slash $320 million from the state budget.
The cuts that took effect Tuesday call for the release of 3,500 of the 23,000 inmates over two years, saving the state about $45 million, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti said.
An additional 2,600 parolees, or 21 percent of those currently on parole, will be released from intense supervision.
Prisoners eligible for early release are those within six months of their mandatory release date. Those eligible for early parole release must have served at least half of their supervised term.
Sex offenders do not qualify. Other offenders, including those who committed violent crimes, will undergo more rigorous reviews.
No staff members are being cut. Money will be saved by reducing the number of inmates sent to private prisons, Sanguinetti said.
In addition to early release, the state is implementing several recommendations by the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice aimed at helping inmates find housing and jobs and get substance abuse treatment.
“Predominantly, it’s nonviolent offenders,” Adams County Attorney Don Quick, a member of the commission, said about the types of inmates considered for early release.
“When it comes to public safety, warehousing is only good for as long as they are in custody. We need to start trying to decrease the risk factors,” he said.
Colorado Attorney John Suthers, another member of the commission, disagreed with the plan.
“An undetermined number of Coloradans will be victimized as a result of these early releases,” he said.
The governor’s office says more than 50 percent of released prisoners return to prison within three years. Reform groups say most return for technical parole violations as they struggle to find housing and jobs with a felony conviction on their record.
“It’s very expensive to be on parole,” said Christie Donner, executive director of prison reform group Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “You have to pay for the drug classes at up to $50 a class, a drug screen that costs up to $15, an additional phone line if you’re on an ankle bracelet.”
That’s in addition to restitution, fines and fees, she said.
Across the country, 23 states have slashed their prison budgets this year, with some releasing prisoners early, according to research by the Vera Institute of Justice.
While cutting overall corrections budgets, some states are spending money on reforms aimed at preventing repeat offenders.
California, for instance, has allocated $47.2 million for its Northern California Reentry Facility at a former women’s prison, where inmates within a year of release will get vocational training and drug abuse treatment before returning to the community.
Prison reform groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, say the economic downturn has accelerated many reforms that have been on the table for years.
“When times were fat people were sort of willing to lock people up without thinking about the costs,” said Amy Fettig, general counsel of the ACLU’s project. “This is about getting smart on crime.”
Others, including Suthers, say the moves are simply aimed at saving money.
“What occurred here is not meaningful criminal justice reform that also happens to save money,” Suthers said. “This is taking an ax to the DOC budget to deal with a budget crisis.”