Colorado's prison costs keep climbing even with minimal rise in number of prisoners - Colorado Politics

Colorado’s prison costs keep climbing even with minimal rise in number of prisoners

Author: - February 26, 2010 - Updated: February 26, 2010


Colorado continues to battle Maryland over which state is 22nd versus 23rd in number of prisoners in jurisdiction under state correct-ions. Nationally, seven out of every eight prisoners are in state jurisdiction prisons.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics no longer vouches for or pronounces prison numbers under fiscal budget years. The number is annual only. Maryland and Colorado numbers are very close, but Maryland with around a million more population can look at that as a success while Colorado’s prison costs still keep climbing.

During the last year of Gov. Roy Romer’s administration, Colorado’s prison population of 14,312 ranked 25th in the nation. Under Gov. Bill Owens, the prison population hugely increased.

His first term beginning in January 1999 through December 2002 added 4,773 more prisoners to the Romer legacy of 14,312. In Owen’s second term, the prison population rose another 3,396. He left Gov. Bill Ritter with 8,169 more prisoners than when he first took office.

When Owens’ term ended, our state was 23rd in prison population and knocking on the door for 22nd. The Romer legacy of 14,312 prisoners compared favorably with 22,572 in Maryland prisons. But the 8,169 additional prisoners in Colorado prisons by the end of Owens’ eight years found Maryland’s increase only totaled 373.

Owens’ hold on 23rd place did not change during the two years of the Ritter prison numbers which only increased by 793 to 23,274, into almost a tie with Maryland’s 23,324 prisoners. That was a gain of 379 prisoners. The 21st state in prisoners is Wisconsin, with 23,380.

The 1,610,446 prisoners in state prisons in 2008 resulted in large part from nine states: California, 173,670; Texas, 172,506; and Florida with 102,388. There is a drop onto the next group with New York, 60,347; Georgia, 52,719; Ohio with 51,686; Pennsylvania, 50,147; Michigan, 48,738; and Illinois, 45,474.

In the high 30s are Louisiana, North Carolina, Arizona and Virginia. In the low 30s and high 20s are Indi-ana, Missouri, Alabama, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.

In planning the future for Colorado’s prison costs, legislators would do well to study states with new highs or important declines in prisoners. Consider Pennsylvania. We don’t have Penn’s figures for 2009 but we do know the numbers are high. Penn went from Dec. 31, 2000 to Dec. 31, 2008 with 13,300 additional prisoners.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported Penn is working on an $800 million expense to construct four or more medium and maximum facilities over the next three years. Meanwhile, Penn is sending 2,000 inmates to Michigan and Virginia.

Michigan in 2008 reduced prison population from 2007 by 1,500. Virginia only grew by 200 prison population.

Between the two years Massachusetts added 700, New York dropped nearly 10,000. Iowa added 800. Over an eight-year period, Indiana, North Carolina, and Arizona saw big increases. Illinois gained fewer than 200. Over the period 2007 and 2008, 19 states saw declines.

Why did Maryland do so well? According to a Governing Magazine article in July of 2004, Maryland had shifted from penal retribution and towards rehabilitation.

“Its leading proponent, (then) Republican Robert Ehrlich came into office in 2003 pledging to get low-level drug offenders out of prison (and into treatment programs instead).” Maryland also beefed up education and treatment programs for all inmates. Ehrlich stated, “The war on drugs has been unsuccessful.”

What changes followed with Ehrlich’s successor, or did the Ehrlich process continue? Colorado legislators on the House and Senate Judiciary committees heard testimony from Judith Sachwald, former director of Maryland’s Parole Dept. on the extensive programs to reduce recidivism. Statesman reporter Cindy Brovsky followed up by interviewing Sachwald who is now a senior advisor with the national Crime and Justice Institute.

Sachwald pointed out the programs continue resulting in a 38 percent drop in recidivism. “Offenders are like anyone. If they don’t know where to turn they will go back to their old habits” she told Brovsky.

One change is easier to find by looking at the statistics regarding female prisoners. Colorado’s numbers for 2008 include 2,294 women. That made Colorado the 15th highest state with female prisoners. Brovsky quoted House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, pointing out in 2008 “85 percent of women sent to Colorado prisons had been convicted of nonviolent crimes.”

In Maryland, that state dropped from 1,184 women prisoners in 2007 to 1,060 in 2008. That was the sixth largest drop, or 10.5 percent, in women prisoners. So Maryland’s female prison population dropped 124 while Colorado only dropped 41 from 2,335 to 2,294.

Colorado also has several hundred juveniles convicted of felonies who are not listed because the feds are trying to get every state to present uniformity in felony population. A much smaller number of juveniles convicted of high felonies are claimed to be part of the 22,661. Information given me is that the 22,661 represents the number already sent by Colorado to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.

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