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Criminal justice system: different perspectives

What do Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist have in common with the ACLU and Amnesty International?

If your answer is absolutely nothing, you’d be wrong.

A growing number of conservatives and liberals in America share a concern that we’re spending too much money on our criminal justice systems and spending it in the wrong places as evidenced by what have become the revolving doors of our jails and prisons.

Colorado’s department of corrections is the state’s third largest budget item, following only K-12 education and Medicaid. While there’s been a very recent drop in the number of prisoners, our prisons cost Colorado over $730 million just last year. Public safety is a core function of state government, yet the very valid question is, are we getting value for the taxpayer’s dollar — the same dollar that could be going to other uses or staying with the taxpayer to begin with.

I’ve been appointed to the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), as the Senate Republican member. While in the House, I was on the commission the first two years after it was created by a bipartisan bill passed in 2007.

CCJJ is unusual as it brings together a very wide variety of stakeholders who often have competing interests and it provides the forum and the challenge of finding common ground for improvements in Colorado’s criminal justice system.

The commission’s charge is to study and implement evidence based policies and practices that “enhance public safety, ensure justice and ensure protection of the victims through the cost-effective use of public resources.”

The members of the commission include Colorado’s attorney general, the state public defender and the executive directors of the state’s department of corrections, public safety, probation, higher education and human services. There’s also at least one representative each from the Colorado district attorneys, juvenile parole board, chiefs of police, judges, sheriffs, victims, criminal defense bar, mental health treatment providers and county government.

As commission members, I and three other legislative members attend the monthly public meetings. Our role is to act as a resource and communication link between the legislature and the commission. Often, we carry the bills as recommended by CCJJ. The meetings are always informative and the discussions thought provoking. More information is available on CCJJ’s website at cdpsweb.state.co.us/ccjj.

At our last meeting, we heard about two groups from opposite ends of the political spectrum who are advocating for change in the federal and state criminal justice systems. The conservative group, called Right on Crime (www.rightoncrime.com), is led in part by Gingrich and Norquist, while the more liberal group is Smart on Crime, (www.besmartoncrime.org).

What’s striking about these very different groups in terms of membership is that their principles for needed reforms are remarkably similar. Much like the CCJJ, people from a variety of perspectives and political persuasions are finding it necessary and worthwhile to reconsider the amount and effectiveness of the money spent in our criminal justice systems and are urging policymakers to do the same.

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