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Why Colorado Doesn't Need to Spend $40 Million to Expand Prisons

Why Colorado Doesn't Need to Spend $40 Million to Expand Prisons
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Even as congressional legislation designed to shrink the number of people incarcerated for federal crimes in the U.S. is finally making meaningful progress, Colorado officials are asking for almost $40 million to expand prisons in the state. But in advance of today's Joint Budget Committee briefing on the Colorado Department of Corrections' proposed budget, advocates are arguing that such an allotment is wasteful, unnecessary and out of step with the latest ideas about how to make the system work better.

"It's very basic: We just don't need it," says Christie Donner, executive director for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "There are so many things we could be doing that would safely reduce the prison population. We should be exploring them instead of moving forward with a $40 million prison expansion." After all, she notes, "the trend in America is to be downsizing."

True enough. This week, the U.S. Senate passed what's dubbed the First Step Act, which does away with many categories for criminal convictions, creates a structure for thousands of current prisoners nearing the end of their sentence to transfer to halfway houses or electronically monitored home confinement, and allows approximately 3,000 people who haven't benefited to date from previous efforts to reduce racially noxious disparities between punishments for crack versus powder cocaine to finally get some retroactive relief.

Donner highlights the bipartisan nature of support for the First Step Act, which is backed by President Donald Trump, as well as many Democratic and Republican members of Congress. "At the federal level, they can't agree on whether or not it's Tuesday," she says. "But the Department of Corrections and the Hickenlooper administration have been full throttle that this" — a big investment for new prisons — "is what they need."

A counterargument is at the center of "Colorado Doesn’t Need Another Prison," a memo issued by the CCJRC in conjunction with the ACLU of Colorado. The document, which is accessible below, takes aim at two specific investments contained in Governor John Hickenlooper's proposed budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year: $27.8 million to reopen Colorado State Penitentiary II and another $11 million to remodel that facility and the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center so that some of the functions at the prisons can be swapped.

The Department of Corrections' goal is to maintain a 2 percent "vacancy rate" at its prisons, and right now, that number stands at 1.2 percent in detention centers for men. Moreover, projections by Colorado's Division of Criminal Justice suggest that the prison population in the state, which presently stands at just over 20,000, will be around 1,000 inmates larger by June 2019. However, statistics in the memo suggest that the current shortage amounts to approximately 75 beds statewide and the total number of prisoners in the state is actually falling.

The following graphic juxtaposes these figures:

"The prison population projections are a forecast that both the Division of Criminal Justice and the governor's office use, and if I was having to make a decision after seeing them, I would be very concerned," Donner acknowledges. "But we need to look at what's actually happening with the prison population, because the projection is wrong."

Indeed, Donner maintains that "the prison population is slightly declining," as seen in this graphic.

With the inmate population plateauing or dipping over the past decade, six prisons, most of them privately owned, have closed during that period: the women's prison in Cañon City, out of operation since 2009; High Plains Correctional Facility in Brush and Huerfano County Correctional Facility in Walsenburg, both shuttered in 2010; Fort Lyons Correctional Facility in Bent County, which stopped operating in 2012; Hudson Correctional Facility in Hudson, shut down in 2013; and Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington, locked tight in 2016.

At the same time, however, the Department of Corrections' budget has continued to rise. Look below to see how much.

The latest funding request isn't new. Donner points out that in the General Assembly session concluded earlier this year, legislators rejected the idea of reopening Colorado State Penitentiary II on three separate occasions — and she doesn't think the rationale for doing so has improved with time.

"We can't make a decision based on an unreliable forecast," she stresses. "That's just prudence. To get the Department of Corrections stabilized, we're talking about having to address fewer than 100 people, and you can't tell me that in a prison system of over 20,000 people, we don't have other choices."

Moreover, she says, potential solutions don't involve reinventing the wheel. "We're not even talking about radical reform. We're talking about efficiency and streamlining the process — boring, big-government stuff. And that's what we should be focusing on: how we get the prison population stable so we can have a conversation about how we want to use prisons moving forward."

In her opinion, "We've got too many people in prison, period. We've got to address drug addiction and mental illness outside the criminal justice system, and we need to look at how to successfully return people to the community and stop the revolving door."

She adds: "Colorado is often a leader on these kinds of issues, and that's what's been so frustrating over the past couple of years."

Looking less progressive than the federal government won't improve the situation. Click to access the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and ACLU of Colorado memo opposing prison expansion.

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