Lawmakers put the kibosh on leasing Huerfano prison, call for sentencing reforms

The Department of Corrections wants to reopen a shuttered prison in Walsenburg to house an expected rise in inmates next year, but lawmakers aren’t buying it — literally.

The department is asking lawmakers for about $12 million to lease the Huerfano County Correctional Facility, a private prison that closed in 2010, to make about 250 beds available for inmates. DOC says it’s nearing full capacity at its state and private prisons, and expects about 1,056 additional inmates next year, in part due to a recent rise in drug arrests.

But the Joint Budget Committee on Wednesday voted down the DOC’s plan. Lawmakers hope that by not paying for the lease it will force the department to send more inmates to parole and community corrections, also known as halfway houses, instead of to prisons.

“I think the message is there has to be a lot more cooperation between the Department of Corrections, the Parole Board and the community corrections facilities,” Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, told The Colorado Independent. “They have to work together to get more people released.”

But not all lawmakers are on board. Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, said he is concerned that inmates who are released to parole or community corrections will end up back in prison because there is not enough treatment available for them. 

According to DOC data, about 45 percent of offenders on parole or in community corrections returned to prison last month. Failed drug tests have gone up from about seven to 10 percent in 2011 to about 25 to 30 percent in January of this year.

“Public safety should be the number one thing. Reform is a great word. But you have to have the knowledge and the programs set up for that,” Crowder told The Colorado Independent.  

That’s why the state should use the money it spends on prison beds and put it into treatment programs, says Christie Donner, executive director of Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

“You either continue to invest more in prisons, or you shift resources into recidivism reduction programs,” Donner told The Colorado Independent. “You cannot do both.”

Felony drug filings on the rise despite sentencing reforms

In 2013, lawmakers made an effort to ensure that fewer people end up in prison for lower-level drug crimes. The law allows those convicted of lower-level felony drug possession to have their convictions reduced to a misdemeanor. It also requires courts to first consider alternatives to prison when handing down sentences, such as treatment.

But, despite this law, more people are ending up in prison for drug possession, according to an analysis by Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

Using data from the Division of Criminal Justice, the coalition found that the number of felony drug cases prosecutors file with DOC has doubled in the last five years. Since 2012, the number of filings doubled to 15,323 in 2017, according to the report, and about 75 percent of these filings were for simple drug possession.

In the 12th Judicial District in southern Colorado, there was a 205 percent increase in drug felony case filings from 2012, according to the report.

District Attorney Crista Newmyer-Olsen said one reason for the increase may be a rise in heroin and prescription opioid abuse. And, she said, there are not many options to get treatment besides a clinic offering Vivitrol and methadone and a for-profit treatment center.

“As a whole, the community wants to do something about the drug issue,” Newmyer-Olsen told The Colorado Independent. “It’s really just about a lack of resources at this point.”  

Donner said it’s unclear why there is a rise in felony drug case filings, but it should raise red flags for lawmakers. And so far, lawmakers have taken the results of the study to advocate for sentencing reforms.

“There are better opportunities for treatment than the Department of Corrections,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, told The Colorado Independent. Giving these offenders treatment instead of prison time, she said, will help keep recidivism rates down.

To deal with an expected rise in the prison population, DOC is hoping to open up more private prison beds, including those in Colorado State Penitentiary II, now called the Centennial South Correctional Facility, which was built in 2010 to hold inmates in solitary confinement and was mothballed in 2012. The Cañon City prison is not yet suitable for non-solitary confinement inmates; DOC needs to build an outdoor recreation facility and make other renovations before they can funnel in prisoners. In total, it is expected to cost $18.8 million to reopen the prison, which they are requesting from lawmakers this year.

DOC’s total budget request is $922 million for the next fiscal year, a 23 percent increase from the 2011 budget of $747 million. This comes as the prison population has declined about 12 percent since 2011. 

But, next year, the prison population is expected to rise to a total of about 20,000. Gov. John Hickenlooper set up a working group with DOC and lawmakers through an executive order last month to study the issue. 

“There is unanimous agreement that we will see a large increase in our prison population,” said Mark Fairbairn, a spokesperson for DOC, in a statement. “The Department will continue to work with the legislature in an effort to secure adequate resources to address this growth.”

This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday with a comment from the Department of Corrections.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated Rep. Lee serves on the JBC. That is incorrect. He serves on the Judiciary Committee. 
Photo by Dave Nakayama via Flickr: Creative Commons