Jerry Kopel

KOPEL: SMALLER HIKE IN PRISON POPULATION CAN SAVE MILLIONS

Owens’ bill comes due on Ritter’s watch

On one side are piles of rock for more prison construction. On the other side is a possible Colorado budget shortfall of $600 million-plus for the rest of fiscal year 2008-’09.

Hmm, $600 million. Where have we read that number before?

Oh, yes. The final budget of Gov. Bill Owens’ Department of Corrections. In the July 1, 2006 fiscal year, the Corrections budget was $647 million. That was a 48 percent increase over the $437 million budget Owens proposed for th e Corrections Department on July 1, 1999, as researched by a Joint Budget Committee staffer.

Prison construction doesn’t begin when a new governor takes an oath of office. Construction and use blends over past, present and future administrations. When Owens left office, Corrections had about 22 state prisons to manage and six private corrections facilities to oversee. The state can save millions of dollars by delaying opening a new prison this fiscal year or in
2009-’10.

Gov. Roy Romer handed Owens a prison population of 14,312. Owens averaged a prisoner-population increase of 1,000 for each year of his tenure, with the population reaching 22,481 by Dec. 31, 2006 — a 57
percent hike.

During the last year of the Romer administration, Colorado’s prison population ranked 25th in the nation.

Under Owens, the population continued its steady increase, and Colorado stayed at No. 25 during his first term. I wrote columns defending the fact that Colorado was just “going with the flow.”

But the increases during Owens’ second term left Gov. Bill Ritter a state that was 23rd in prison population. Even though Ritter’s prison population increase in 2007 was minimal (360) it was enough to move Colorado up to 22nd highest nationally in state prison population.

It could have been worse numerically, although Colorado still would have ranked No. 22. Some faulty Corrections Department conclusions caused the state auditor to review the mandatory and discretionary parole picture for state prisoners through the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008.

With the exception of prisoners convicted of certain sex crimes, everyone in prison gets parole. Mandatory prisoner parole can vary, depending on the type of crime. When the percentage of time required to be served in a prison cell is reached, the prisoner is released but is still subject to parole for the remainder of his or her sentence.

Offenders can be eligible for discretionary parole after serving half of their sentences, which also can be shortened by good time served.

During fiscal year 2006-’07, the last six months of Owens’ term, followed by the first six months of Ritter’s term, the Parole Board granted 2,700 discretionary paroles out of 18,000 sought. The Parole Board became dominated by Ritter appointees in July 2007, the beginning of fiscal year 2007-’08. It considered 17,800 discretionary
parole seekers and granted 2,800 paroles.

Did the increased number of discretionary parolees stay out of trouble? The auditor’s report did not answer that question, but it usually takes three years to discern the consequences of such a move.

What is the recidivism rate for parolees? It depends on whether you ask Corrections Department or the (Type 1 independent) Parole Board.

The state auditor found the Correction Department counted parolees as “guilty of recidivism if an offender is arrested and charged, even if the offender is not convicted and sentenced to incarceration.”

In other words, the policy is to “bring in the usual suspects” resulting in “guilty even if deemed innocent.”

The Parole Board counts recidivism for crimes when the offender is convicted.

If the discretionary release reincarceration rate is less than the mandatory parole recidivism rate of 65 percent or more, that has to be a plus.

Increasing discretionary release could cut $27,000 to $28,000 off the current yearly cost for each prisoner getting early release and, hopefully, reduce the need for constructing more prison cells.

If the 700 parolees (700 more than for the last totally Owens-appointee-dominated Parole Board) had been kept in prison during the 2006-’07 fiscal year, the Ritter total would have been much higher than a 360-offender increase.

However, it wouldn’t have changed Colorado’s ranking, which still would have been 22nd in the national total of state prisoners for the year ending Dec. 31, 2007.

It is frustrating not to be able to assess the midterm trend at the end of June 2008, but the Department of Justice stopped releasing midterm reports after 1999.

It does create a problem of content to have incarceration numbers released on an annual basis by the U.S. Department of Justice and the parole numbers on a state fiscal basis.

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.