Despite Legal Pot, Colorado Still Imprisons Many People for Drug Possession

Inside the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility.
Inside the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility.
The number of people in Colorado prisons is steadily rising, according to a new report by the ACLU. And even in the land of legal pot, a solid chunk of those in state prisons are there because of drug charges and other non-violent crimes.

The Blueprint for Smart Justice report, which takes a state-by-state look at prisons, details what the prison population looks like in this state and suggests reforms that Colorado could implement to reduce its prison population.

One in ten people in prison in 2016 were there for drug charges, according to the report. Combined with other nonviolent offenses, that accounted for nearly half — 42 percent — of the prison population.

A report by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition released in March found that Colorado had a 106 percent increase in drug-felony case filings in 2017 as compared to 2012, and 75 percent of those filings were for drug possession. From 2015 to 2016, the state saw a 17 percent increase in the number of individuals sentenced for drug possession, which included a 24 percent increase among women.

Her group has a few theories on what has led to this increase, says Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado. Post-recession, policing budgets have grown, and more police officers are on the street. That could lead to more arrests, prosecutions and sentencing.

In addition, she suggests, perhaps legal pot is changing the prosecutorial landscape in an unintended way, with  police focusing on drug-possession cases that come with heftier sentences, such as those involving meth and opioids. "It almost seems like that's the lowest-hanging fruit in some ways. Simple possession might be an easy thing to find, cite, prosecute and sentence," Maes notes.

"Every time you talk to the [district attorneys] about it, they always just say universally, crime increases because population is rising," she adds. "I don't buy it."

In the report, the ACLU details not just what charges sent people to prison, but also the amount of time they're spending there. The number of people serving life-without-parole sentences in Colorado has nearly doubled over the past decade, and one out of every five people imprisoned in 2018 was fifty or older.

Like most other states, Colorado also imprisons people of color at a rate much higher than it does white people. The imprisonment rate of black adults was nearly seven times that of white adults — the ninth-highest in the country. Similarly, Colorado had the fourth-highest imprisonment rate of Latino adults.

Putting people in prison comes with a hefty price tag. The annual state corrections budget is just shy of $1 billion per year, the CCJR report found. That represents a 579 percent increase in general spending on corrections between 1985 and 2016. Without any reforms, the number of people imprisoned in Colorado is projected to increase by 38 percent by 2024, according to the ACLU.

What can be done? The ACLU has a litany of recommendations, Maes says, all falling under three main categories: getting people out of prison who are eligible for parole; keeping people from coming in for too long with sentencing reform; and then getting people out of the pipeline once they're released with diversion programs or community corrections programs.

"A lot of these things that are, frankly, public-health concerns are being addressed in the criminal justice system and shouldn't be," she adds.

With the ACLU's suggested reforms, the report concludes, Colorado would have 9,085 fewer people in prison and the state would save more than $675 million annually.
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Paige Yowell joined Westword as a staff writer in 2018. Born and raised in Nebraska, she previously worked as a business reporter for the Omaha World-Herald.
Contact: Paige Yowell

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