Hickenlooper’s budget takes aim at recidivism reduction package championed by Ritter

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal cuts programs designed to reduce recidivism, prevent juveniles from entering the criminal justice system and cut the number of repeat drug offenders in jail — programs former Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration said were saving the state millions of dollars.

Colorado realized significant savings as a result of Ritter’s recidivism and diversion packages as indicated in a fact sheet released by the Office of State Planning and Budgeting in 2010. The sheet noted a combined savings of over $10 million in the first year of each of the packages. It showed a 5-year net savings for Ritter’s 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 budget proposals of $20,724,955 and $13,438,422 respectively. It further stated that $336.2 million was saved because the state has not had to expand the Trinidad Correctional Facility.

Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown said the changes do not reflect a decision to move against Ritter’s past programs but were a budgetary necessity.

“There were no easy cuts in the budget this year, including the changes at the Department of Corrections,” Brown said.

Many of Hickenlooper’s proposed cuts are to areas expanded by Ritter. For example, “Offender Education and Skill Building,” a category of programs shown by both Ritter and Hickenlooper’s budget proposals as significantly reducing the frequency with which inmates return to prison, is stripped of over $3 million in funding.

Cuts to correctional education would limit inmates’ ability to earn high school diplomas or GEDs, and limit vocational training, and even basic reading and writing instruction. Approximately 650 inmates would see their access to education suspended as teachers and staff are cut.

While the upfront costs are important to balancing a budget that already will see $375 million in cuts to K-12 education, the long-term effects of cuts aimed at reducing recidivism could be considerably more expensive to the state if they are left in place for multiple years.

Cuts to education programs for those incarcerated in state prisons has been shown in studies to substantially add to offenders’ risk of recidivism after serving their time. Multiple studies conducted between 1996 and 2006 showed that correctional education and vocational programs decreased recidivism by 5-35 percent. Those studies further showed that 24 percent of individuals who received vocational training were able to attain full-time work after leaving a half-way house.

Perhaps more interesting in a time of economic struggle for the state, a 2004 study, conducted by Audrey Bazos and Jessica Hausman of the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, showed that for every $1 million put into correctional education programs, future costs were reduced by $1.6 million.

The budget also strikes at youth prevention and intervention, behavioral health, and community correction programs touted by the former administration for their ability to make the state safer while also saving money.

Funded with $1.8 million, the Department of Corrections currently provides wraparound services to parolees as a result of HB10-1360, which consist of job assistance, mental health and substance abuse treatment, psychotropic medication, and assistance integrating back into the community. Hickenlooper’s budget strips this program of funding of $1.3 million annually, leaving $500,000 to administer the services.

While only a one-year cut, Hickenlooper’s budget will slice 23 full-time employees from the state’s Therapeutic Community Program, a program which has been shown to be effective in reducing recidivism amongst those with both mental and drug related problems.

The budget would also cut permanently the Circle Program, a similar program designed to aid those with co-occurring disorders who have failed in other programs. With 75 percent of those sent to the program able to reduce or avoid incarceration, the budget will require an increase in the number of Department of Corrections and county jail beds in use.

Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, told the Colorado Independent that the trend toward prison and sentencing reform like Ritter’s are not unusual right now.

“A bunch of states, including Texas, are rethinking what they have been doing for 30 years. They have found out that they can save money and protect public safety by taking out first- and second-time non-violent offenders and reinvesting that money on mental health and drug treatments, and not have to build new prisons as a result.”

However, she said that the current budget proposal that cuts education, mental health and reentry programs is the perfect recipe for higher recidivism rates.

“What is so mind boggling about [this year’s budget] is that Colorado actually could cut corrections in a way that isn’t going to have the negative effects on public safety and recidivism that the cuts that they are making are likely to have.”