Public Enemy Number No. $1

The legislature says it's payback time for prisoners. So far, the prisoners haven't cooperated.

Seven years ago, the Colorado legislature passed a law designed to put the bite on convicted criminals. The concept was sterling: to force lawbreakers who had money to reimburse the state or the county for the cost of their incarceration. In theory, such a bill would offset the cost of probation supervision, defray the skyrocketing expense of building prisons and housing inmates, and leave the state more money to spend on such luxuries as, say, higher education.

In practice, the law has been a bust.
During the first five years the law was in effect, the state failed to collect a penny from its prisoners. And that isn't the worst of it: When staff time and court costs are figured into the mix, Colorado taxpayers actually lost money on the deal.

Two years ago, when legislators were informed that they were tossing cash into a black hole, they repealed the law, rewrote it and enacted a similar bill that was supposed to make it easier and less expensive to collect money from lawbreakers.

That effort, too, has proven to be a flop. And separate efforts to collect from county-jail prisoners and juvenile offenders haven't fared much better.

Today Colorado's prison system is home to a Cherry Hills Village stockbroker and the heir to a Denver department-store fortune. But those men aren't paying their way in the penal system--and neither, apparently, is anyone else. In fact, despite the legislative mandate, officials in Colorado's criminal-justice system have no record of any state prisoners making a payment under the law.

The reason is simple: Prisoners as a rule don't have much money, and those few who do can be quite adept at holding on to it.

Even so, one state legislator wants to widen the net and try to collect even more money from inmates, this time by charging prisoners a "use fee" for operating their television sets, hair dryers and other electric appliances. It's an effort that is leading critics to wonder: How much is fiscal conservatism going to cost the state this time?

The State Prison Inmate Care and Custody Reimbursement Act of 1989 was carried in the House of Representatives by Phil Pankey, a Republican from Denver's southern suburbs who made a career in accounting and built a political reputation as a penny-pincher. The Senate sponsor was Bill Owens, an Aurora Republican who now serves as the state treasurer.

The effort was a copycat bill, based on a law that had been successful elsewhere. "I think I had read that the state of Michigan passed similar legislation and that they'd recovered a million [dollars] or more over a period of years," Pankey recalls. "So I introduced the legislation." (Michigan, in fact, has been extremely successful in collecting reimbursements: According to a spokesman for the Michigan Attorney General's office, the state collected more than $2.5 million between 1990 and mid-1996--and that total doesn't include the amount that local governments have collected from county jail inmates.)

"The original premise was pretty simple," Owens says. "For the state to pay all the costs for all felons assumes that all of them are indigent. And the fact is that in some cases, felons have significant assets.

"Say we have a millionaire with lots of money," Owens continues. "Why are we paying for his room and board when he harmed society in the first place?"

With the cost of housing a prisoner pegged at roughly $40,000 per year, Pankey thought the bill would pass easily. But it proved to be a hard sell. Politicians and the public go through cycles over how to best deal with criminal-justice issues, says Owens. Back in 1989, when he was trying to get the bill passed, Colorado had moved from what Owens calls a "toss-them-in-jail-and-throw-away-the-key" attitude to a "we're-imprisoning-too-many-people-let's-understand-the-social-pathologies" mode.

Some of the debate about the Pankey/Owens bill revolved around whether an inmate's family should be made to suffer because of the prison costs incurred by a wayward relative. "I remember that more liberal [representatives] brought up the fact that an inmate might have a wife out there with children, or a husband and children, and that they would need the money to take care of the family," Pankey says. "And I didn't want to take food out of kids' mouths, either."

So it was decided that state reimbursement would take a backseat to providing support for a spouse and/or dependent children. Inmates' restitution to victims was also given priority, as was the inmates' need for six months' worth of funds to tide them over following their release from prison.

Although Owens recalls "a lot of 'no' votes," the bill was passed and the law took effect July 1, 1989. It was made retroactive, meaning any offender who was then in prison or in a county jail and who had sufficient assets was to be liable for the cost of his room and board. Probationers were to pay the cost of their supervision.

At least, that's how it was supposed to work. But there were some major problems: The state attorney general's office--which was charged with investigating inmates' assets and filing suit to recover the monies--didn't want to do it. Pankey complains that the Department of Corrections wasn't intent on cooperating, either. And even had those agencies been enthusiastic, the legislature didn't provide them with any money or personnel to do the job.

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