By Cindy Brovsky
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
With more looming budget cuts and the economy expected to take the spotlight in the 2010 session, Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll is determined not to let criminal justice reform disappear in the shadows.
“The more we can stop people from returning to jail or prison and give them alternatives to be productive, the more money we will have in the General Fund for higher education, K through 12 education and jobs,” he said.
Carroll, D-Denver, expects recommendations from the bipartisan Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to result in bills addressing escape, probation eligibility, drug sentences and driving under the influence.
Bills currently being drafted include one sponsored by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, on DUI sentencing and another sponsored by Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, on sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses. Carroll said he is working to get sponsors on the other issues.
“There is too much inconsistency,” Levy said about DUI sentencing. “We need to take a tougher approach to repeat offenders because they put everyone at risk.”
More than one in five inmates in Colorado prisons is serving time for drug offenses.
Steadman’s bill would reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and use the money saved from not incarcerating the offender for drug treatment. The commission’s Drug Policy Task Force — composed of law enforcement, behavioral health experts and treatment providers — agreed that the current structure and approach to prosecuting drug crimes is frequently ineffective in reducing recidivism and curbing addiction.
Still, with the state facing a $600 million shortfall this fiscal year and a $1.5 billion shortfall next year, GOP Minority Leader Josh Penry said it’s “highly unlikely” in an election year that criminal justice reform will get much traction. Penry is among a vociferous group of Republicans who question Ritter’s decision to release eligible inmates early to save money.
“Right now, it’s the tail wagging the dog,” said Penry, R-Grand Junction. “Public safety is far too important, and the early release so far has been haphazard.”
Penry said the GOP will try and block further implementation of the early release program when the issue comes up in budget supplemental hearings.
“I expect a pretty lively debate,” he said.
In August, Ritter said the state could save $18.9 million because 3,400 prisoners would be within six months of their mandatory parole date and eligible for early release over the next two years.
But shortly after implementing the program, critics questioned why prisoners, including a sex offender and others who had extensive and even violent histories, were released. By early December the governor’s office reported that 235 eligible inmates had left prison early with an estimated savings of about $5 million.
Ritter continues to defend the early release program, which is supported by the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.
“It is a thoughtful, extremely modest reform to the criminal justice system,” said Ritter spokesman George Merritt. “It is innovative, maintains public safety, and it makes sure taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently.”
The commission also is studying whether diversion programs, instead of prison, would be more appropriate for some offenders, Carroll said. In 2008, 85 percent of the women sent to Colorado prisons had been convicted of nonviolent crimes.
“We need to take a long, hard look at who is being sent to prison and jail and for what reason,” he said.
Another issue under review is the state’s 50 percent recidivism rate. Last session, the Colorado House and Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony about how the state of Maryland reformed its parole system and saw 38 percent fewer parolees recommit crimes. Judith Sachwald, the former director of Maryland’s Parole and Probation Department, said her state’s research-based approach to parole holds the offender accountable but offers more extensive programs to help keep the parolees from committing more crimes.
“Opposed to the old style, where a probation officer may simply ask if the individual is employed and has a place to live, the officer now asks the individual why they are homeless,” Sachwald said during a phone interview. “The officer may learn that the individual was living with family, but that they are no longer welcome there. The officer can tell the offender what other housing options may be available and not just send the individual back on the street.
“Offenders are like anyone. If they don’t know where to turn, they will go back to their old habits,” she said.
Sachwald, a senior adviser with the national Crime and Justice Institute, visited the Colorado Department of Corrections.
“I saw signs that the Department of Corrections and the leadership are serious about making changes,” she said.
Carroll has a deeper understanding of recidivism than most legislators. He saw the problem 10 years ago, when he served as a chaplain to youth offenders and counseled parolees.
“A lot of them would be excited about getting out of prison or jail, but there was a certain degree of disillusionment,” he said. “They have a record. They have a hard time finding a job and a place to live. The default attitude of society is being hard on crime, but that’s not very thoughtful.
“Some offenders need to be in jail and prison, and some should never get out,” Carroll said. “But for the vast majority, there needs to be a more thoughtful approach to criminal justice reform, or nothing will change.”