Correcting Corrections, Part 1

Is crime decreasing because the state is incarcerating people?

What are the most effective ways to prevent crime and repeat offenders?

Those are a few of the questions a panel of experts hoped to answer last night, in a town hall forum dealing with the subject of corrections. The event was hosted by Rep. Morgan Carroll, an Aurora Democrat and vice-chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Attendees included executive directors for the Department of Corrections (DOC) and Department of Public Safety, Attorney General John Suthers, and a representative with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC).

It’s arguably the top budget crisis in Colorado. In 1977, approximately 89 citizens per 100,000 were incarcerated, and now the number has grown significantly.

It’s estimated that 438 out 100,000 were incarcerated in 2004, and the DOC is routinely being pushed to the breaking point.

“It’s a fixed ratio and the ratio itself is growing at a pretty staggering pace,” said  Rep. Carroll, before introducing the speakers.

But while panelists agreed that there was a problem, they disagreed on the ways to fix it.

Ari Zavaras, DOC Executive Director

Zavaras, who headed the DOC under former-Gov. Roy Romer, stressed a theme of public safety.

“If we don’t take some steps, if we don’t try to address a little bit of what’s happening within the Department of Corrections, we are basically going to be the state budget before too much longer,” he said, before commenting that the Ritter administration was dedicated to fixing the problem.

Zavaras said the DOC should take advantage of modern technology to monitor and individuals in the community and also lauded the Governor’s push for a crime commission to examine corrections issues.

“The state went through some difficult times. People in the department over time have had to make some difficult decisions as to resources, and some things were cut within that department that really hurt and contributed to the recidivism rate we’re now seeing,” Zavaras explained.

Two arms that were adversely affected were programs to modify inmate behavior and the state’s parole system, which is dealing with arduously high case loads.

“When they’re so many cases, and they see somebody getting even close to the line as far as problems go, they’re going to revoke them back. They’re going to send them back to prison,” said  Zavaras.

Peter Weir, Department of Public Safety Executive Director

Weir, a self-described “life long Republican” and former judge, started by saying that there were two groups of offenders in the DOC: those who were sentenced under mandatory minimum sentences without a judge’s discretion, and those who worked their way in there.

“That last thing that I wanted to do as a judge, and my colleagues wanted to do, was to sentence people with addiction problems to DOC, but they are there because they literally worked there way into the department of corrections,” Weir said.

Weir also lauded Gov. Ritter’s plan to do things differently, and further explained the creation of the Colorado Criminal and Juvenile Justice Commission, which is set to be approved this year by the legislature.

According to Wier, the commission has three objectives: to look at preventative measures for offenders so they don’t return to corrections, to look at alternatives to incarceration such as mental-health and substance-abuse programs, and to examine the state’s sentencing structure which hasn’t been reviewed since 1973.

Part 2 will include testimony from Christie Donner with CCJRC and Attorney General John Suthers.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at