This Jail for Hire

Colorado's cheap solution to prison overcrowding has cost inmates plenty. It could cost the state millions.

He adds, "Not every single part of a person is horrible. I have known some decent human beings in the penitentiary, people I'd actually call friends. But we have no due-process rights anymore. None. Imagine the omnipotence that brings--the power of treating thinking creatures like they were pieces of meat.

"These people are human meat brokers. Doesn't that shock anyone anymore?"

Working in corrections has been likened to sitting in a bathtub with no control over the faucet or the drain. Prison officials have little say about how many inmates are sent to them or how long they stay. Lawmakers and judges control the sentencing, and in Colorado, the parole board has enormous discretion regarding who gets out and when.

Still, the DOC's critics contend that the department should be doing more to manage the size of its prison population, rather than relying on new prisons and out-of-state transfers as a solution. As in many states, prison overcrowding has become a chronic problem in Colorado, a crisis that's been around long enough for the department to have gotten a handle on the forces that are driving it.

"Let's start with what's not driving it: crime," says Roger Lauen, a Seattle criminologist who worked in corrections in Colorado for nearly twenty years. "From 1978 until now, the crime rate has gone up and down in small measures, but if you look at an eighteen-year period, it looks more like a flat line than anything else."

Lauen was the state's first director of community corrections and a member of the Colorado Criminal Justice Commission until he resigned in 1994 "in strong protest" over the legislature's increasingly rigid lock-'em-up policies. He argues that the incarceration boom has increased the number of people behind bars fourfold--from 2,600 in 1979 to more than 10,000 today, a number that is projected to exceed 14,000 by 2001--with little or no effect on the rate of violent crime in the state.

"That's very disturbing," Lauen says. "It means we can quadruple it again in the next fifteen years; we'll have enough money invested in prisons by then to [be forced to] shut down the University of Colorado at Boulder. But we still won't have any impact on violent crime."

Of course, locking up violent offenders does have a deterrent effect on the number of crimes they, at least, will commit. But less than a third of the DOC's prisoners are serving time for violent crimes; the rest tend to be low-level drug offenders, burglars, petty thieves and the like. Although some have previous violent convictions on their records, the increasing rate at which people are going to prison for nonviolent crimes is one of the principal factors behind the growth in prison beds.

DOC officials point out that it's the legislature's job to decide what type of criminal goes to prison, not theirs. Since 1979, the Colorado General Assembly has enacted wave after wave of sentencing "reform"; the net effect has been to widen the range of imprisonable felonies and to make the state's sentencing structure more complex and inflexible than ever. In 1985 the length of sentences was doubled across the board; since that time, legislators have passed various measures designed to reduce the impact of the doubled sentences--lowering sentencing ranges and increasing the amount of "earned time" prisoners are awarded to speed their release date--while creating more severe penalties for sex crimes, crimes against the elderly or handicapped, and other special categories.

Add to that, says Ben Griego, the "big inconsistency" in the way different prosecutors and judges handle the same types of offenses. "This state now has seventeen different types of sentences," says Griego. "Five or six different types of life sentences. It gets real complicated when you have inmates going in and out, committing crimes under different sentence structures. It's a mess."

Lauen, though, believes the DOC can do more to alleviate that mess--for example, by taking a more "proactive" stance with "young eager-beaver state legislators" to keep bad crime bills from becoming law. "The DOC and the parole board and the judges are guilty by their nonparticipation," he says. "They should be saying, 'Look, dummies, we have enough lightweights in prison. Let's get the riffraff out of there so we have space for the violent offenders.'

"They don't do that. The people who know the least about the system are constructing the bills. Most of them are written by the district attorneys' council."

That leaves the other release valve: parole. But parole numbers have fluctuated wildly in recent years. Critics of the system say the process has become hopelessly politicized and that the DOC hasn't developed sufficient community placement options for low-level offenders.

"The parole board is in an impossible political situation," says Denver criminal attorney Phil Cherner. "There's no reward for letting inmates out, and people are all over them if a parolee commits a new crime. How can they possibly win?"

Currently, there are 4,036 prisoners in Colorado--roughly one out of three--who have reached their parole eligibility date but have been refused parole. Many are sex offenders or other high-risk inmates who may apply for parole for years without success, but others are simply stalled in the system, either because they haven't been able to obtain an acceptable halfway-house placement or because a parole-board member has decided they're not ready yet.

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