Penry: Ritter using downturn to push ‘soft on crime’ agenda

On Caplis and Silverman‘s KHOW talk radio show on Tuesday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Josh Penry attacked Gov. Bill Ritter for releasing “hardened criminals” and sex offenders earlier than parole boards advised, picking up a well-worn GOP tack on Democrats as “soft on crime.”

Josh Penry

Josh Penry

Penry, the Grand Junction lawmaker who serves as Colorado’s Senate minority leader, suggested Ritter was using the recession-constrained budget to dangerously target the state incarceration system for budget cuts. He seemed to be attempting to paint the move as simultaneously unconsidered as well as part of a murky liberal agenda.

But the plan is part of no hidden agenda, as the governor’s spokesman Evan Dreyer is quick to point out, an assertion supported by the record. Ritter’s ideas about criminal justice are a corner stone in his approach to governing. For years he has been clear in his aim to lower ballooning incarceration costs by reducing recidivism rates in the state. Dryer said Penry’s statements were “just flat wrong.”

A rational discussion

On Tuesday, show host Craig Silverman asked Penry whether Ritter’s release of inmates demonstrated he was “soft on crime.”

“There is a clear agenda from this administration on sentencing laws. We have seen it in the general assembly from Democrats in the legislature. There is a push to spend less on incarceration. I am fine on having a rational discussion about that … But to do it under the pretext of a budget crisis I think is wrong. I do. It is. It is impossible to explain with a straight face to communities that this is the only place where you can save money,” Penry said.

Those kind of comments are just politics, said Dryer, underlining Ritter’s experience as a prosecutor and making sly reference to Penry’s scant knowledge of the criminal justice system.

“Bill Ritter has not had a change of values,” Dreyer told The Colorado Independent. This is not only about the recession, he said. Ritter worked for 25 years as a criminal prosecutor “putting bad guys behind bars … and his criminal justice leadership team is committed to focusing on public safety to protect the people.”

The governor’s plan to limit incarceration costs by reducing the state’s current 53.4 percent recidivism rate by half has been a goal of the governor since he took office. In fact there is a long history of support for recidivism reduction in Ritter’s speeches and budget proposals.

A long view

The Accelerated Transitional Program Pilot program announced as part of this year’s budget proposal stemmed from a commitment Ritter made in the 2007 State of State address to reduce recidivism in Colorado.

In fact Ritter touted a proposal to reduce the recidivism rate as part of his first 100 days in office and he introduced the plan as a budget amendment for fiscal year 2007-2008.

The Crime Prevention and recidivism-reduction package for the current year was released in October of last year.

“This package … keeps offenders from committing new crimes, from victimizing innocent people and from returning to prison at great taxpayer expense,” Ritter said in a release at the time.

The release further noted that it would be the “third year of significant recidivism-reduction initiatives under Gov. Ritter.”

Dryer said the current Accelerated Transitional Program is not merely a reaction to the budget but part of a careful plan developed over time.

“What it does is it provides an accelerated program for people who are getting out of prison in 180 days anyway. It gets them into a parole system that will have increased supervision and more services.”

Dryer said that the program provides services that are designed to increase the likelihood of success.

“Services included are education, job training, substance abuse prevention treatment — those are the kinds of services that will help parolees succeed and succeed early.

“This is part of that,” Dreyer said. “It fits right into the governor’s entire philosophy, to get those people who are coming out to succeed, to not go back.”

Changing course

According to the Colorado Statesman, the administration of Republican Gov. Bill Owens drove up Department of Corrections costs significantly in the years before Ritter took office.

“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.”

The increases helped rank Colorado 22nd in inmate population among the states and, according to Dryer, helped boost costs to near 10 percent of the state’s general fund.

The governor’s program was initially projected to save the state $19 million in savings this year by reducing the prisons population by 2,720. Those numbers are being scaled back, however, because initial estimates of parole denial set at 20 percent where drastically under projected. The parole board so far has rejected 80 percent of those eligible for the program.

Roughly 6,400 individuals were estimated to be released through the program but the parole rejection rate reduced those numbers to 1,600, which reduced projected savings. As a result, new cuts are being looked at in the department.

Dreyer told the AP that the numbers show that parole officials are being careful. “It’s a good program. It’s a good policy.”

Penry disagrees.

“This policy is madness and it should be stopped immediately,” he said.

Caplis and Silverman, 20 October 2009

SILVERMAN: Why are do you think Governor Ritter is doing it? Do you think that he is soft on crime?

PENRY: There is a clear agenda from this administration on sentencing laws. We have seen it in the General Assembly from Democrats in the legislature. There is a push to spend less on incarceration. I am fine on having a rational discussion about that — though I can tell you that a number of the proposals that have come out have just been flat out bad. But to do it under the pretext of a budget crisis I think is wrong. I do. It is. It is impossible to explain with a straight face to communities that this is the only place where you can save money. Remember these are people — 46 crimes people committed. One was a sex offender, one was a vehicular homicide while driving under the influence these are serious criminals.

CAPLIS: Well said.

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Joseph Boven

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