Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration doubled down on its calls to open a shuttered private prison, saying efforts by lawmakers to enact sentencing reforms instead of making more beds available could lead to prison overcrowding.
Department of Corrections Executive Director Rick Raemisch came to the state Capitol on Wednesday to discuss prison reform efforts with lawmakers as part of a working group set up by the governor.
Talks failed to reach a middle ground, however; DOC wants to open a private prison in Huerfano to house inmates — which are expected to rise to about 20,000 next year, in part due to an increase in drug arrests — but lawmakers denied DOC’s request last week for $12 million to lease the prison, saying the agency needs to do more to get inmates on parole or into halfway houses.
The Hickenlooper administration says the plan moves too fast, putting the state at risk of having overcrowded state prisons and county jails — not to mention releasing inmates too soon, potentially leading to higher recidivism rates.
“I’m all for alleviating some of this prison population. But if this doesn’t work we are in deep trouble,” Raemisch told the working group. “I have overworked, understaffed, full prisons. And I’m afraid I’m gonna lose it.”
Raemisch also said the department doesn’t have full control over which prisoners make it into parole or into community corrections. He said in 2017, the department made 8,946 referrals to community corrections and only 1,492 were placed into beds.
Glenn Tapia, the director of the Office of Community Corrections, referred questions to a public information office, which has yet to return a request for comment.
No legislation is currently proposed that would make the transfer from prisons to community corrections more efficient. Instead, lawmakers are wielding their control over the budget to force DOC to make the changes.
Assistant Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, said this is lawmakers’ opportunity to come up with new ways of dealing with the prison population.
“If we fail to try anything new, were sort of stuck in this same approach year after year after year,” Wist said.
But Henry Sobanet, the governor’s budget director, said more time is needed for this kind of reform.
“There is a concern that we are taking human judgment out of the equation and we’re working only for budgetary targets,” Sobanet told the working group. “It merits some evaluation and some stakeholder work.”
After a steady decline since 2011, the prison population is expected to start rising again — increasing the stakes for the sentencing reform efforts. But it’s unclear if the lawmakers’ effort to reel in DOC’s budget will lead to prison overcrowding. A report by a Joint Budget Committee staffer shows that there will still be about 700 private prison beds available next year if the DOC does not change its practices.
Lawmakers say DOC can come back next year and make a supplemental budget request to lease the Huerfano County Correctional Facility, a private prison that closed in 2010, if space does not open up.
Raemisch said this is not a workable backup plan; it takes months to open up a prison, he said.
Also, packing more prisoners into county jails may get the state in trouble, says Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, a sheriff. He said sheriffs are already talking about suing the state to get more state inmates out of their jails.
“I think if we rush into this too fast, I think we’re gonna see more lawsuits from the counties,” Cooke said.
The reform effort comes as lawmakers grow frustrated over DOC’s rising budget — which has swelled 23 percent over the last seven years, from $747 in 2011 to an estimated $922 million for the next fiscal year, despite a drop in the prison population. They are especially concerned about plans to open up Colorado State Penitentiary II, now called the Centennial South Correctional Facility, a Cañon City prison that was built in 2010 to hold inmates in solitary confinement but was later mothballed in 2012.