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|August 27 - September 2, 2009
Wasted money, wasted lives
Budget shortfall forces prison and parole reforms
by Pamela White
Colorado’s $318 million budget shortfall may succeed in accomplishing something that activists have been working to achieve for a decade — reform in the state’s criminal justice system. On Sept. 18, Gov. Bill Ritter announced a host of budget cuts, some of which pertain to state prison inmates and parolees. Most of the cuts will go into effect on Tuesday, Sept. 1.
The budget cuts include $263 million in targeted service cuts, the elimination of 270 full-time equivalent positions and a reduction of $48 million in cash-funded programs.
An estimated $18.9 million will be saved by letting parolees who’ve met the conditions of their parole off early and letting inmates who’ve demonstrated their readiness to be paroled out of prison early. Some of the savings will be utilized to give parolees enhanced and front-loaded services, such as help finding work and housing, in order to improve parolees’ success in transitioning to life outside prison.
These measures, far from being simply a way to cut corners on the Department of Corrections budget, were recommended by the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) and are part of Ritter’s anti-recidivism program.
“The cuts are going to actually enable us to implement some pretty rational policies about parole and how much time you spend in prison,” says Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, a member of the CCJJ. “I think the governor is actually embracing some pretty important changes in corrections philosophy.”
Levy says that cutting the budget for the Department of Corrections will help to protect strained social services from additional cuts.
“I think this is an opportunity to look at whether what we’ve been doing in Colorado is actually cost-effective and whether it’s fair to the people in Colorado who rely on mental health care and all the other parts of our budget that are being short-changed because we haven’t actually tried to apply evidence-based policies to corrections,” Levy says.
Currently in Colorado, one in 29 people are in prison, on parole or on probation, a figure higher than the national rate of 1 in 31. In 1982, that figure in Colorado was 1 in 102.
In 1999, the Colorado Department of Corrections budget was just over $300 million. This year, it’s more than $760 million.
Levy attributes the dramatic increase not only to an effort by lawmakers to seem “tough on crime,” but also on “a basic lack of understanding of whether there’s any logical connection between the length of a sentence and public safety.”
“I think our philosophy has morphed from rehabilitation to just deterrence and incapacitation,” she says. “If someone has been bad, we remove them from society and make society safer for the duration of the sentence. But what we haven’t looked at is the end of the sentence. I think what people have done is basically ignored the fact that most people who go to prison are going to be released at some point. And given that they are, it’s in our best interests to make sure they know how to conform to the norms of society. What we’ve been doing instead is just locking them up and just forgetting about them till they’re about to come out. Public safety isn’t served.”
Levy says this isn’t about taking dangerous offenders and releasing them on society, but rather looking at individual parolees and inmates and moving those who qualify on to the next step in the rehabilitation process.
“They’ve either served their sentence, or they’ve met with their parole board and the parole board has determined that they’re a good risk for release on parole,” she says.
Rather than simply disgorging parolees and inmates, the new program would offer increased services during the first 18 months of a parolee’s life beyond bars.
“The services provided would be very intensive services — getting them housing, getting them jobs, making sure they’ve got the psychotropic medications that they may need, doing all of those things in a very intensive way so that they don’t have to be supervised on parole for five years,” Levy says. “You pretty much know whether somebody’s going to succeed or fail on parole in the first six to 12 months. So what you want to do is front-load the services and give them every chance of success.”
Christie Donner, director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC), has been working with legislators and policy-makers since 1999 to change the way Colorado handles incarceration and parole. Though Donner says Ritter’s changes represent “a tiny piece of the pie” of overall reform needed in Colorado, she is encouraged by Ritter’s decision.
She says that much of the state’s inflated prison costs are the combined results of drug-sentencing laws and a parole system that too often turns parole into a revolving door back into prison. Overall, it creates a system of wasted money and wasted lives, she says.
“One third of all prison admissions are drug violators, and one third are technical parole violators,” she says. “Two thirds of all prison admissions are based on policies that don’t work — and that’s what we’re cutting back higher ed for.”
Under the state’s current system, about three quarters of those who fail while on parole do so for a technical violation, not because they’ve committed a new crime.
“That’s a distinction that’s really important to make,” Donner says. “A lot of those measures are based on financial ability. You have to pay for UAs. You have to pay for classes. You have to pay for rent. You have to pay for an electronic monitoring device if you’re on it, plus your fines, fees, restitution, child support. The laundry list of expenses is pretty significant. It generally runs several hundred a month.”
But even in the best economy, finding an employer willing to hire a parolee isn’t easy.
“When you’re talking about re-entry, being broke and being in a homeless shelter is a pretty deep hole to dig yourself out of,” Donner says. “If they can’t find jobs, their chance of success in meeting the conditions of their parole is pretty abysmal.”
For Donner, Ritter’s willingness to make these cuts marks a shift from a one-size-fits-all approach to parole to something that’s more individualized and which is based on research about what actually works.
“You don’t keep people on supervision for the sake of some timeline,” she says. “People who achieve the goals of supervision are transitioned off supervision; if they haven’t you keep them on.”
Donner says that when Coloradans want to get serious about addressing the strain that our exploding prison population puts on the state budget, they will have to consider two things: sentencing reform and a way of dealing with drug addiction beyond warehousing people in prison. Drug offenses are now the No. 1 crime that lands people behind bars.
“Over 30 years we’ve seen a layering effect of increasing sentences with no research or data to demonstrate that that’s a successful strategy for making us safer,” she says. “I think people are starting to peel the layers of that onion back and saying, ‘Look, yeah, the research is actually saying quite the opposite, that we’re now at the point of diminishing returns in the use of incarceration not just in Colorado, but across the country.’ State after state is doing a comprehensive review of where they need to readjust sentencing.”
What’s most encouraging to Donner is the fact that, for the first time since CCJRC was founded in 1999, the issue of changing the way the state deals with drug addiction is squarely on the table.
“I think there’s fairly universal understanding that there’s a limited impact that the criminal justice system can have in terms of reducing drug use,” she says. “As far as the amount of money we’re spending to lock people up whose only crime is illegal drug use — yeah, I think there’s a lot of potential there to look at things differently.”
Among the cuts Ritter announced is the loss of $5 million that had been set aside for use in expanding vocational and education programs for state prison inmates. Though the loss of that funding is disappointing to some, Donner says things could be worse.
“Is that disappointing? Yeah,” she says. “But I’m remembering back to the budget crisis of 2001-2002 under the Owens administration and how they slashed prison programs to the bone. I think this is the compromise that did the least damage to the integrity of the prison programs. That’s not a cut in actual current programming, but line items that were in the governor’s recidivism reduction program that aren’t going to get funded. Programs won’t expand.”
According to Donner, waiting to expand vocational programs might not be a bad thing.
“There’s still some very serious questions about the efficacy of the current prison vocational programs,” she says. “It’s not providing marketable skills in today’s economy. The No. 1 vocational program is in janitorial services. We need to be doing a more market-driven analysis of what the fields are that need workers and how to retool educational program to provide people with skills that result in jobs.”
Though both Donner and Levy say they hope these small changes are just the “tip of the iceberg” in reforms for Colorado, both believe this constitutes a good start.
“Hats off to Ritter,” Donner says. “I wasn’t expecting this.”
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