Imagine a race with 10 horses. Your horse begins last. Halfway through the race your horse climbs to fifth and it stays there as the race ends. As a statistician you could probably claim the horse did twice as well as the other horses from the starting position, or you could claim the horse settled in halfway through the race.
That's the problem with Colorado prison statistics. It's true as many journalists report, that Colorado prison numbers increased substantially from 1994 to 2003, from over 9,000 to over 19,000. But it is also true that state prison numbers have been static compared to the rest of the country since 2000.
That's the position of Source Book 2004, a statistical publication of Governing magazine. From 2000 through 2003 Colorado consistently ranked 25th among the 50 states in the actual number prisoners. We were also 20th in incarceration per 100,000 population.
In other words, like our horse race, we have remained static for four years, carried along on the rising tide of "lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the key". Some states did reduce prison populations. Massachusetts, with a 2000 census population of 6,300,000 and in the same statistical 2000-2003 prison period as Colorado has shown a steady decline in the number of prisoners, from 11,356 to 10,511.
Back in 2000, the Dept. of Corrections listed the four factors then producing the increase in prisoners:
Perhaps it would be worthwhile for our legislative council to study states with consistent prison population declines. There are a number of them (nine in 2003) and we should find out whether what they did would work in Colorado.
There have been two views of prisons. One view is from Gov. Bill Owens. "Prisons are expensive but the cost of not having enough prisons to house those criminals who should be behind bars is unacceptable."
The other view is from Charles Colson, a prison reformer. Reformers are often conservatives who serve time in prison as did Colson for Watergate related crimes committed during the Nixon presidency.
Colson's view: "We have failed to discern the difference between prison and punishment. Many well-meaning conservatives have fallen for lock-em-up rhetoric and admittedly those kind of speeches -- I know because I used to write them -- can be used to whip up the public into a fervor. But conservatives who do this miss the point.
Ask the average Coloradoan and he or she will likely agree with both views. Is the problem solvable? I wish I had the answer.
(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)
Copyright 2015 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel