Jerry Kopel

Prisons 2007

January 20, 2007

By Jerry Kopel
What a difference a year makes.
One of the bigger ovations Gov. Bill Ritter received at his State of the State address dealt with overcrowding of the prison system and (he dared) to mention (and question?) the present system guaranteeing a large number of drug offenders behind bars. I watched on Channel 2 and both sides of the aisle were standing and applauding.
"Nonviolent offenders are the largest single classification of Colorado state prisoners" claimed reporter Kevin Flynn in an October, 2005,  Rocky Mountain News (RMN) article.
Gov. Ritter said his administration would, among other reforms, "look at drug courts and other inventive programs..."
Ritter followed up on his State of the State speech while meeting with the Joint Budget Committee stating his desire to reduce the number of recidivist prisoners.
At the end of last year's State of the State by Gov. Bill Owens, the Denver Post noted Sen. Dave Owen was the only Republican daring to speak out for publication, that "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 in November."
A RMN editorial in 2006 indicated the state's inmate population quadrupled between 1985 and 2005, but failed to mention WHY this occurred. It wasn't just a Colorado issue but one that was happening elsewhere.
In 1985, House Bill 1320 by Rep. Don Mielke and Sen. Kathy Arnold, passed the House on final reading after conference committee approval, 57 to six. The bill DOUBLED the maximum penalty for felonies. Those voting "no" were Democrats JoAnn Groff,  Phil Hernandez, Wayne Knox, and Wilma Webb. Republicans voting "no" were Rep. Carol Taylor-Little and Ron Strahle (at that time House Majority Leader).
Since that time, the portion of the state budget used for Corrections has more than tripled.
According to Flynn's article using Correction Dept. statistics, in 1984 "the average sentence for all crimes was two years. Through 2004 it doubled to a little more than 4 and 1/2 years."
His article pointed out "new prisoners" are about 120 per 100,000 population". But according to Sourcebook, a reputable magazine for legislators, in 2005 the number of people behind Colorado prison bars was 447 per 100,000 population, ranking our state 17th in the nation.
In 22 years, among thousands of votes, the two bills I regretted the most in supporting were HB 1320 and the House Concurrent Resolution by Rep. Phil Massari allowing a registered elector vote on a state lottery.
In a November 20, 2006 editorial the RMN commented on  Gov. Owens final budget suggestions to the Joint Budget Committee in which "Owens warned the legislators not to try to trim his proposed $53 million (8.7 percent hike) in the corrections budget by reforming any of the state's SOMETIMES DRACONIAN  mandatory minimum sentencing laws."  (emphasis added). I think they really meant the maximum sentencing laws since the minimum are generally the same as in 1984.
Going back to the 1984 sentencing structure is one alternative as to maximum sentences, another is one that legislators now appear to accept: Learn from other states' reforms.
None of the states mentioned in Colorado newspaper articles about reform included Maryland. According to Sourcebook, a publication of Governing Magazine, a subsidiary of Congressional Quarterly, Maryland's recent prison population numbers indicate a top-notch job of treading water.
Recognizing that the numbers cited many not be totally in line with our state corrections numbers, but accurate enough for  comparison with 49 other states, Maryland went from 22,522 inmates in 1999, to 23,276 in 2005. That is an increase of 752.
In nearly the same period, Colorado, Sourcebook claimed, went from 14,312 to 20,841 prisoners in 2005. And a recent Corrections Dept. report indicated 22,300 in 2006, an 8,000 increase over 1999. Coincidentally, during the Owens tenure from 1999 through 2006, according to Sourcebook, the number of state employees increased 7,410. I assume some of them went to work in Corrections.
In a July 2004 article in Governing Magazine, Maryland has shifted from penal retribution and towards rehabilitation. "Its leading proponent is Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich who came into office in 2003 pledging to get low-level drug offenders out of prison (and into treatment instead.)" Maryland is also beefing up education and treatment programs for all inmates.
Ehrlich stated "the  war on drugs has been unsuccessful".
While a drastic reduction in the number of prisoners would free up millions of dollars for higher education, "treading water" on the number of prisoners might save nearly $500 million over the next five yeas.
(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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