By Jerry Kopel
Take the words "child", "sex", "crime", and "prison", put them together in bills and legislators enthusiastically shout "yes"! If the bills reach Gov. Bill Owens, I bet he'll sign them.
If I'm in the legislature and up for re-election, I'd probably vote "yes" also. But please don't ask where to put the longer serving or new prisoners and don't ask me where the money is coming from.
That's the dilemma facing the legislature in 2006. House Minority Leader Joe Stengel, R-Littleton, took time out from bashing House Democrats in his session opening remarks to praise fellow Republicans Rep. Bill Berens, Bob McCluskey, and Joshua Penry. In a space of 10 lines, you will find "sexual predators, 24 years in prison, criminalize, children, sex, violent predators." That's 24 minimum years.
An almost similar scenario was laid out by Gov. Owens in his state of the state address to the legislature.
Don't misunderstand where this column is going. As a 22-year legislator, I voted for every death penalty provision later declared constitutional by our Supreme Court. I was chief sponsor of the first Colorado law requiring mandatory prison sentences for violent criminals, and substantially contributed as a major sponsor and drafter to establish stronger penalties for crimes against seniors.
Further, Colorado is NOT out of line with other states in the number of prisoners being added each year.
According to a 2005 Associated Press release, seven million adults were in prison or probation in 2004, about one in every 31 adults. And the National Conference of State Legislatures claims states are expected to spend $34.6 billion on prisons in fiscal 2006.
But there are states that have reduced their prison load and perhaps it is time for Colorado to carefully examine how those states did it.
One state senator who may understand the problem better that most is Sen. Dave Owen, R-Greeley, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee.
There are a number of Democratic voices alarmed at the increase in prison population predicted by the Dept.of Corrections, but Owen has to my knowledge, thus far, been the only Republican speaking out.
After the governor's State of the State address, according to the Denver Post, Owen "said he was disappointed the governor did not mention the impending train wreck in the Dept.of Corrections. If all the predictions come true, we'll be out of prison beds by November," he said.
Gov. Owens' first address to the Colorado Press Association in mid-December 1998 (before taking office) mentioned lots of issues but he did not mentions prisons or corrections. He did in an earlier interview with a Rocky Mountain News reporter. Owens made it clear that requests from the Dept. of Corrections would not suffer. "So that means there will be less than expected increases for other areas of the budget."
His approach over this administration has been "logical." If you keep persons in prison a long time, they won't be out committing more crimes.
Looking ahead, the Dept. of Corrections has told the JBC they face $368 million more for new state prisons, $182 million for overhead and 3,000 more private prison beds, and 27,000 prisoners by 2011. That cost is about one out of every seven dollars made available through successful passage of Referendum C.
The following numbers are from Sourcebook, a publication of Governing Magazine, which is a subsidiary of Congressional Quarterly. They do not reflect federal prisoners. While the numbers may be slightly different from those of the Dept. of Corrections, they provide comparisons with the other 49 states.
The rankings are of ACUTUAL prisoners, not percentages of the population.
SO Kentucky went up 3,000 and Colorado went up 6,000. Sourcebook lists a numbers of states that have declined in ranking, such as Connecticut, which went from 20th in 1998 to 24th in 2004, a pickup of only 1,500 additional prisoners in that six-year period. In 2004, Source books lists Connecticut as having 20,108. According to the Wall Street Journal of Dec, 21, 2005, Connecticut's total for 2005 will be 18,123.
Sourcebook prison rankings for 2005 will likely not be known for several months, but based on the 2005 figures in the Journal, Connecticut could go from 24th to 27th.
Along with looking at ways to reduce recidivism in order to stop the potential increase of 7,000 more prisoners within the next five years, the department and the legislature ought to examine what other states have done. They are easy to find from the Sourcebook. Perhaps they hold solutions for us.
Connecticut allows persons accused of minor crimes to stay home while awaiting trial; it softened rules of putting persons back in prison for technical violations of probation and parole.
Kansas has an early release program which identifies each prisoner capable of earning a living when released, and provide the kind of assistance to make him or her a wage earner. Virginia identifies elderly prisoners who can be released.
And U.S. Sen. Sam, Brownback, R-Kansas, has a bill providing grants to states totaling $200 million to reduce recidivism. The bill is pending the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Dept. of Corrections should make available to their leadership and all legislators copies of the Rocky Mountain News prison story of Oct. 19, 2005 and the Wall Street Journal front page prison story gtom Dec. 21, 2005. Hat could be the start of major thinking on how to cut prison costs for the present and the future.
Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.
Copyright 2015 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel