Can lawmakers swallow early release before prison costs swallow state budget?

By Ellen Miller
WESTERN SLOPE CORRESPONDENT

GRAND JUNCTION — State figures show that spending on the Department of Corrections has quadrupled since 1984, eating an ever-larger share of Colorado’s general fund each year at the cost of higher education and other programs.

In an effort to stop the budget bleeding, Club 20, the Independence Institute and the Pew Center on the States are sponsoring forums to generate support for changing the way the state handles its criminals.

At a community forum last week in Grand Junction, DOC chief Ari Zavaras, Department of Public Safety executive director Pete Weir and state Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, joined local law enforcement officials to push for support of Gov. Bill Ritter’s controversial program to cut $19 million from the state budget by releasing some inmates six months earlier than their scheduled release date.

The forum came in the midst of heavy criticism by Republican legislators who charged that early release isn’t working and that violent criminals, including a sex offender, were among the first 10 inmates released.

None of Mesa County’s three Republican legislators — Sen. Josh Penry and Reps. Laura Bradford and Steve King — attended the forum.

The parole board has the ultimate decision on who is released early, speakers at the Grand Junction forum said.

“We’re talking about being smart on crime, because the vast majority of our inmates will get out,” Weir told a crowd of about 40 people.

Weir, a former prosecutor and former district judge, outlined the three types of criminals he has encountered in his career: sociopaths, “who just hate people and need to be locked up;” those who “prey on the addictions of others,” such as drug dealers; and those whose mental instability leads them commit crimes either because their mental illness is uncontrolled or to fund drug habits or other addictions.

“It’s this last group — at least 50 to 60 percent of the criminal population — where a difference can be made,” Weir said. “I’m convinced we can increase public safety and reduce spending. The best bang for the buck is (parole) supervision and appropriate treatment.”

Zavaras, who began his career as a cop, said he would never compromise public safety and asserted that Ritter, a former Denver district attorney, wouldn’t do that, either — adding that the state won’t solve its prison spending problem without better release programs.

“The true cost of corrections starts at release,” he said. “I guarantee you, if we don’t change behaviors, we get more crime. The diversion of funds to recidivism programs is not popular with some of our Legislature, but the majority is committed, and so is the governor.”

Zavaras said to be effective, early release programs must offer parolees help with housing, employment and mental health.

Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger, a Republican who sits on the state’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, said he has been subjected to “a great deal of pressure” to denounce the early release program — but he has not.

“In 1985, the Legislature doubled all felony sentences,” Hautzinger said. “We were locking up about 100 people per 100,000 of our population, and today it’s 450. It’s more expensive to lock somebody up in prison than to provide alternatives.”

“We have a recidivism rate of approximately 50 percent in Colorado, one of the worst in the nation,” he said.

Hautzinger and Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey outlined the Western Slope community’s intensive communitywide effort to stem the methamphetamine epidemic. One step was to take $8 million from the budget for building more jail space and using it instead to build a locked meth treatment center and to expand community corrections programs.

Carroll said the responsibility for the prison cost problem “is on the Legislature. But with House elections every two years and Senate elections every four, you do what’s popular. One in 28 people in Colorado is under some form of corrections, and that’s far higher than in the rest of the country.

“Are we more deviant in Colorado, or have we fashioned a system that inherently doesn’t work?” she asked. “What it comes down to is that the DOC is the largest mental health provider in the state.”

Carroll said the majority of inmates “work their way into prison.”

Drawing on her experience as an intern during law school, when she oversaw 1,200 parole violation hearings, Carroll said the path to Cañon City usually starts with an arrest for drugs, followed by a lost job, eviction, subsequent crimes and, eventually, prison.

“Often this guy is a wage-earning parent, so you put the costs into welfare, too,” she said.

On the other hand, can you expect politicians to put more convicts on the streets during an election year?

“The political dynamic can’t be ignored,” Carroll said. “We need public education and to stick with our data to make the case. No elected official wants to be painted as soft on crime, and public sentiment can’t be ignored.”

Weir said the justice commission is vetting legislative suggestions for the session, and he remains optimistic.

“This commission is bipartisan, and we need 75 percent of us in agreement to refer (proposals) to the Legislature,” Weir said. “So I am optimistic that we’ll see good legislation, even in an election year.”