Jerry Kopel


Feb. 5, 2008

By Jerry Kopel


Up, up, and away. Unfortunately, the state is not Superman, just Superprison.

However, state prison population increased by only 254 in the first year of Gov. Bill Ritter's administration, (according to a response from the Colorado Dept. of Corrections) compared to a 1,025 inmate increase in the final year  of the Owens' administration.

Colorado's state prison population continued to grow in 2006, with 22,481 prisoners as of Dec. 31, 2006. That number is from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) issued in December, 2007.  A year is a long time to wait for official prison statistics by the BJS. Why can't we get BJS numbers for 2007 from all states by July of 2008?

This column reflects data from the first through the last year of Gov. Bill Owens' tenure, and the potential cost per inmate in 2008.

On Dec. 31, 1998, our state was 26th in gross numbers at 14,312 state prison inmates. On Dec.31, 2006, we were 23rd. And our 22,481 prison inmates were an increase of 1,025 compared to Dec.31,2005. That was the 14th largest gross gain that year in the 50 states.

Total state prisoners in our nation as of December 31, 2006 was 1,377,815, an increase of 37,504 more prisoners compared to Dec. 31,2005 numbers. That's an increase of 2.8 percent for the nation. But Colorado's 1,025 prison inmate increase was 4.8 percent, a 12th highest percent tie with two other states.

How did we compare for the eight years of the Owens administration with the rest of the nation from Dec. 31,1998 through Dec. 31, 2006?

On Dec. 31, 1998, the U.S. has 1,178,978 state prison inmates. On Dec. 31, 2006, the U.S. had 1,377,815 state prison inmates, an eight year 16 percent national gain of 188,837.

In that same time frame, Colorado went from 14,312 state prison inmates to 22,481. That's a gain of 8,169, an awesome or fearsome (take your pick) 57 percent increase, which was third in the nation, but first among states with prisoners in five or six figures.

The other five figure state with a large increase was Florida, which went from 67,224 to 92,969 inmates, a 38 percent increase over eight years.

The actual largest percent increases went to Idaho and Minnesota, not often heard from as get-tough-with-crime states. Minnesota's state prison population went from 5,572 to 9,108, a 64 percent increase. Idaho went from 4,083 to 7,124 inmates, a 74 percent increase.

Some states have decreased their prison inmates numbers, while other have treaded water. At the same time we increased 8,169 prisoners in an eight year period, Maryland went up only 373 prisoners, going from 17th in the nation in gross numbers of 22,572 to 22d place with 22,945.

Maryland had just 460 more prisoners than Colorado. Will Maryland or Colorado be 22d in the nation for 2007?

Here are comparison numbers between Maryland and Colorado according to Sourcebook, a publication of Governing Magazine. The last two years are quoted directly from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Year                                                         Maryland                               Colorado

Dec.31, 1998                                            22,572                                  14,312

Dec.31,1999                                             23,095                                  15,670

Dec.31, 2000                                            23,538                                  16,833

Dec.31, 2001                                            24,329                                  18,320

Dec.31, 2002                                            24,186                                  19,085

Dec.31, 2003                                            23,727                                  19,756

Dec.31, 2004                                            23,276                                  20,841

Dec.31, 2005                                            22,737                                  21,456

Dec.31, 2006                                            22,945                                  22,481

For Colorado as of Dec. 31,2007, we had 22,735 state prison inmates.

What happened in Maryland that didn't happen in Colorado?

According to a Governing Magazine article in July, 2004, Maryland had shifted from penal retribution and towards rehabilitation. "Its leading proponent, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich came into office in 2003 pledging to get low-level drug offenders out of prison (and into treatment programs instead)." Maryland also beefed up education and treatment programs for all inmates.

Ehrlich stated "the war on drugs has been unsuccessful".

Maryland's numbers are less than 400 more than at the beginning of 1999, while Colorado's numbers are 8,000 more than at the start of the Owens administration.

A Rocky Mountain News article in July, 2007 indicated an estimated annual cost of $27,500 per inmate. Multiply that number by 8,000 and you have a yearly cost increase of $220 million.


(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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