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Prison, nonviolent criminals and saving money with a "game changer"

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Last month, two new reports on Colorado's prison system urged officials to get smarter in how they spend precious tax dollars -- specifically, in how they classify and monitor high-risk offenders, while figuring out which inmates are more in need of rehab than expensive cell time.

Now, a pilot program that takes a similar approach at the county-jail level is being honored this week -- and its supporters say it could eventually result in not simply lowering jail costs but prison populations, too.

Funded by the National Institute of Corrections, the One Less program in Mesa County is part of a movement within the criminal justice system toward "evidence-based decision making" and practices. In plainer terms, it involves coming up with proven assessment tools for people facing arrest for a variety of nonviolent crimes. Instead of simply relying on a beat officer's judgment about who needs to go to jail -- as opposed to, say, issuing a summons -- the program provides a series of steps for winnowing lesser offenders from the jail population without compromising public safety.

"If we can identify low-risk offenders and get them out of the system, then we can use those resources on high-risk offenders who need them," says Roberta Nieslanik, deputy director of Colorado's Office of Alternate Defense Counsel. Contrary to the popular mythology about first-timers getting "scared straight" by a little jail time, she adds, studies indicate that incarcerating low-risk offenders tends to increase recidivism, while draining services needed to effectively supervise more serious felons.

Up to a third of those arrested tend to be at a low risk to reoffend, says attorney Dani Haraburda: "When someone breaks the law, we've had this idea that the best deterrence is to stick them in jail. But if you give low-risk offenders summons, that frees up resources to manage the high-risk offenders -- instead of putting a bunch of pre-trial services on people who are going to show up for court anyway. The goal is not about punitive sanctions for someone with a drug addiction; the goal is to get this person on track."

The One Less project has probation officers working closely with defense attorneys to monitor individual participants' progress -- an "unheard-of" level of collaboration, Haraburda says. So far the pilot program's data points toward fewer probation violations and a drop in jail population. Although it's too early to project cost savings with much accuracy, the program is gaining approval with judges, public defenders and even prosecutors in the county.

And on Thursday, September 26, the One Less program will be the recipient of the Rupert-Tate Game Changer Award at the annual Voices for Justice fundraiser, put on by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. Named after former state legislators Penfield Tate and Dorothy Rupert, the award honors local innovators in criminal justice reform -- and the One Less program certainly fits that bill.

For more information about the Voices for Justice event, which also features dinner and silent and live auctions, go to the CCJRC website or call 303-825-0122.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Dorothy Rupert on the prison industry and being a game changer."

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