The most vocal liberal on the state Criminal Justice Commission has given up--driven out, he says, by politics that seem to breed prisons.
In an eight-page resignation letter, Roger Lauen urged Governor Roy Romer, other commission members and legislators to "please wake up" before the current mania for building prisons puts the state in a California-like "fiscal morass."
Lauen complains that "legislators in a frenzy to outdo each other in their `get tough' posturing" have overburdened the prison system and taxpayers without cutting into crime.
"Building more prisons as a means of combating crime is like building more hospices to eradicate AIDS," he wrote in his resignation letter. "Both proposals are preposterous."
Lauen's resignation on March 16 ended his association with the Colorado prison system that began in 1973 when he was hired to run its college education programs. He was director of the state Community Corrections division from 1976 to 1984. Lauen, 54, is currently a writer and an adjunct faculty member in criminology at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
"It takes political will and conviction to `do the right thing' and not mindlessly follow the public's fear of crime," Lauen wrote. "There is a paucity of political will and conviction among CJC members, in the Governor's office, and within the General Assembly as a whole."
He says his point is made by the flagging attention paid to the commission. Romer originally attended commission meetings, but, Lauen says, the governor hasn't attended in three years.
Lauen's frustrations peaked earlier this year when House Bill 1340, which would earmark $141 million to create prison space for 2,300 more inmates, was introduced without being presented to the commission for debate, as would have been customary.
Cindy Parmenter, the governor's press secretary, says Romer has no comment about Lauen's resignation or letter. "The letter was passed on to Bill Woodward, with the Department of Public Safety, who is the staff person assigned to that commission," she says. "Any reflections on it should come from him." Woodward did not return telephone calls.
Legislators created the Criminal Justice Commission in 1989 to examine the best use of state prisons, report those findings to lawmakers and the governor, and make recommendations on legislation. The twenty-member commission includes legislators and criminology experts like Lauen, who was one of the first people appointed. Now he says he is leaving because his battle with the conservatives who control the commission has left him exhausted and discouraged.
"I haven't minded being the loyal opposition as long as I was treated fairly and given equal time for debate," he says. "But I'm not anymore."
Senator Lloyd Casey, a Democrat from Northglenn who resigned from the commission in March after serving one year, agrees with Lauen. "I just decided not to participate in that farce anymore," Casey adds.
Lauen reiterated his longtime stance that prisons should be used primarily for violent criminals and drug sellers. Nonviolent offenders should be working to pay restitution to their victims, he says, and substance abusers should be in treatment programs.
His letter blasted efforts to "dismantle" the juvenile offender system by sending young offenders to adult prisons as a deterrent to crime. He says studies show that deterrence does not work on at-risk (15- to 25-year-old) males, who have little stake in conventional society. Society would be better served by ensuring that such males do have a stake in their communities by keeping them in school and helping them get jobs, Lauen says.
His views don't win sympathy from some commission members, including Jeanne Adkins, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
"He thinks that prisons are a failure, and his measure for that is rehabilitation," Adkins says. "I don't think that rehabilitation is a priority. I think prisons are for punishment--a way to take someone out of circulation. I might agree with him that we need to sit down and set some new goals. But I don't think that I could ever agree with him about prisons."
Lauen points to statistics indicating that violent crime rates continue to climb despite tougher sentencing and a prison-system operating budget that has skyrocketed from $62 million for about 3,400 inmates in 1985 to $210 million for more than 10,000 inmates in 1993.
"Less well known are the `hidden' costs of capital construction and debt service for the new prisons," Lauen wrote. "The policy question is: What has been accomplished by this massive increase in prison population, operating, capital construction and debt service costs?
"The only answer I can come up with is: Some very narrow private and political interests have been served; everyone else has been shafted.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.