One of Colorado’s fastest growing budget line items is the corrections budget. In the most recent fiscal year, 12.5% of the general fund state budget in Colorado went to corrections, up from 9.8% ten years ago.
This is driven largely by “war on drugs” era increases in the length of criminal sentences in the state. According to the Joint Budget Committee: “The growth in the inmate population is the primary factor driving the Department of Corrections’ budget.” Thus, far, Colorado has largely focused on finding places to put criminals rather than on reducing correction costs through efforts to address its root causes. As a result, in the most recent year, state prisons were so strained that housing inmates was only possible due to the fact that 425 inmates at any given time who should have been in state prison were backlogged in local jails awaiting prison space, and another 4,954 were in private prisons. The total Colorado inmate population, including these inmates, was 23,159 in the 2006-2008 fiscal year. On top of that parole populations have grown at a “compound annual rate of 10.5%” in the past ten years.
Referendum C freed up money to address root causes of crime in the 2006 legislative session budget. But, the state underutilizes efforts to address the root causes of crime, which could shrink that budget and also benefit society by reducing crime. This is to a great extent of a produce of policy decisions made by Governor Owens. For example, in 2002, a bill, SB 39, to reduce drug sentences modestly and use the funds to pay for drug treatment, which passed the State Senate by a bipartisan 26-9 margin, and passed the State House by a 62-1 margin, was vetoed by the Governor.
Three important root causes of crime are substance abuse, mental illness and a lack of education. The vast majority of convicted felons are individuals with one or more serious problems that prevent them from functioning productively in society. I’ll examine each of these issues in turn, each in its own installment, in coming posts.
Cross Posted at Wash Park Prophet