Sen. Tapia On the Craft Of The Moral Document

After months of working to balance and fine tune Colorado’s proposed $17 billion budget, Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee last week unveiled its handiwork. This begins a series of discussions with Sen. Abel Tapia, the Chairman of the JBC, on the complexities of the document.

CoCo: The budget has been described by more than one person as a moral document, reflecting our societal principles…

Sen. Tapia: Well actually, it’s just been this session that we’ve called it a moral document. It was actually Governor Ritter that talked about it as a moral document, In prior years we never called it a moral document, we called it ‘The Budget.”

CoCo: What’s the difference?

Sen. Tapia: One key area, and that is corrections. The prior administration felt very strongly that we should enforce our laws, we should put people in prison and we should make it awfully hard for them to get out of prison. The state of Colorado is a safer place as long as we keep people in prison.

Well, our prison population has ballooned. We have no excess capacity in terms of jail space or prison space. We are asking for proposals from private prison venders – not building our own prisons but contracting with private prisons. We’ve actually kind of made them into economic development drivers for small communities. So right now the moral issue is, do we want to spend all our money on prisons and prison growth, or do we want to slow down the growth of prisons and try to spend money in other areas, like education?

This year is a transitional year because we started with the Owens budget, and the Ritter administration just barely got on and just barely hired executive directors, so they didn’t have much to say about the budget.

CoCo: You had already been working on this budget for several months…

Sen. Tapia: Yes, we’ve been working on it since November of last year. Ritter wasn’t sworn in until the 11th of January, and he didn’t hire most of his people until into February and part of March, so, this is the Owens budget modified, by the Joint Budget Committee and by recommendations made from the Ritter administration.

The Ritter Administration put together a diversion and recidivism package because he felt we had to stop the growth of prisons, and you stop the growth of prisons three ways: One by sentencing reform and that’s only what we can do in the legislature – that would stop the growth and that’s up to us as legislators.

Second, you can put money into diversion programs and his recommendation and supplemental request was to put money into diversion packages. That means if you’re a woman and you’ve been sentenced to jail because you have a crime dealing with drugs or alcohol, we’ll sentence you, but we’ll divert you to an alcohol treatment facility, and if you successfully pass that then you don’t have to serve your prison time.

Another area we have put emphasis on is the back end, and that’s recidivism. Under Governor Owens’ administration we had something like a 50 percent recidivism average – 100 are paroled, 50 of them come back to prison within six months

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Cara Degette

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