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Save money with prison reform

We are pleased with the report this week from Sen. Ellen Roberts, notifying us she has been appointed to the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, and just as pleased that awareness exists on both sides of the political divide of the need for reform of our justice systems and, in particular, of the state’s prison system.

In these difficult economic times, attention must be paid to the cost of operating the state’s prison system and that cost must be reduced. Dramatically.

Just as with other budget issues — including the U.S. budget situation in which partisan legislative activity must be steered away from cuts to small and easy political targets, and non-partisan attention must be paid to major budget sectors such as defense and entitlements — real change needs to go deeper than the figures on paper. The changes must involve major alterations in policy and procedures — to government and cultural habits and expectations.

Roberts points out, despite a drop in the number of prisoners (and a prediction of fewer prisoners in the future than was once thought), taxpayers are spending more than $730 million each year on the Colorado prison system. That system is swollen with prisoners who, in many peoples’ minds, should not be incarcerated. When our K-12 and higher education systems absorb blow after blow to their budgets and these most crucial elements of a productive, growing society are held hostage to restrictions, we need to look closely at how we can cut money from the third largest budget item in Colorado — prisons.

In recent years, Colorado’s incarceration rate (adult inmates per 100,000 population) was 506, and much higher than the national average. This in a nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Twenty-two percent of Colorado’s inmates in 2010 were incarcerated for drug offenses (the U.S. jails more people for drug offenses than the EU jails for all offenses, with 100 million greater population).

So, it seems one of the first ways lawmakers can go about reducing costs in the prison system is to lower the number of inmates incarcerated for drug offenses. While in 2001 the National Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse found Colorado had the lowest per capita spending on substance abuse prevention, treatment and research of all states in the U.S., that situation has changed somewhat, with seemingly positive results. Efforts made in recent years have had an effect. Factor in a decrease in the crime rate, an aging population, drug courts and parole reform and the number of inmates in Colorado might be only 21,662 in 2013.

That’s still too many prisoners, and the cost is still too great when we figure well over $20,000 per year to simply house each inmate.

We need continued reform of all types.

A few suggestions include the notion that drug offenders are better treated outside the prison system, that many offenders who do not commit crimes against persons are better handled outside the prison system, that increasing attention should be paid to an incredibly high recidivism rate (easily over 50 percent) to slow down the revolving door.

Legislators need to seriously consider reform of sentencing laws, with a constant eye on public safety. They can also begin a serious discussion revolving around the claim that we might have too many laws, and many of the laws we have must be modified. The fewer laws, the fewer constraints, the fewer offenses, the fewer inmates. An industry has been built on the enforcement of these laws and the care and feeding of offenders, and surely there is a great deal fat to trim.

Better here than in our schools, which provide one of the main avenues to law-abiding citizenship.

Karl Isberg

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