Lawmakers are rolling the dice in an effort to drive down the state’s prison population.
The $28.9 billion state budget approved Thursday includes no money to lease private prison beds despite a warning from the Department of Corrections that the plan could lead to prison overcrowding.
Instead, lawmakers cut spending to lease private prison beds by about $4.4 million and put up an additional $4 million to pay for more beds in community corrections, also known as halfway houses. This is part of a broader effort to force the Department of Corrections to transition more inmates out of prison.
“I’m very concerned with mass incarceration and the proliferation of our private prisons,” Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, told The Colorado Independent. “We’ve been able to come together and put a rein on the Department of Corrections’ budget.”
The budget sidelines a DOC request for funds to lease about 250 beds in the Huerfano County Correctional Facility, a private prison that closed in 2010. Corrections officials said the $12 million was needed to house an expected rise in the prison population next year.
The state budget also includes no money requested to build an outdoor recreation facility and make other renovations needed to reopen Colorado State Penitentiary II, now called the Centennial South Correctional Facility. The Cañon City prison was built in 2010 to hold inmates in solitary confinement but shuttered in 2012. The savings here add up to about $19 million.
Democratic lawmakers say the state needs to do more to release inmates from prison, and the budget cuts should force the Department of Corrections, which oversees the state’s prison population, to transition more inmates into halfway houses or into parole.
For Republicans, this is about reining in the department’s budget, which has swelled nearly 20 percent since 2011 while the state prison population has dropped 12 percent over the same time period.
“We’re trying to force a more holistic approach to this,” Rep. Cole Wist, R-Centennial, told The Colorado Independent. “We think it’s gonna result in a better budget. And that’s what we’re supposed to do in our budget process — be efficient with taxpayer dollars.”
Wist said Colorado may be among the first states in the country to set a corrections budget based on targets for transitional releases — an idea presented to lawmakers by a Joint Budget Committee staffer earlier this month.
But the Hickenlooper administration has pushed back against this plan, saying the Department of Corrections has little control over whether inmates are successfully admitted to these transitional programs.
“We’re full in our purchased beds,” Henry Sobanet, the governor’s budget director, told lawmakers earlier this month. “So it’s using more community corrections beds and we don’t control that system.”
The Department of Corrections also opposes this plan, claiming it could lead to state and county prison overcrowding; the prison population is expected to approach 20,000 next year, in part due to a rise in drug arrests. DOC did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
To help ease this concern, the budget includes an additional $4 million for more beds in community corrections and an additional $295,000 for intensive residential treatment beds, which specifically help treat mental illness and drug addiction.
The hope is that this money will prevent people from re-offending and ending up back in the prison system, Herod said.
The backup plan, lawmakers say, is to invite the Department of Corrections to the state Capitol to make a supplemental budget request. This plan, however, could be controversial; lawmakers used the supplemental budget request process this year as an opportunity to draw attention to what they said has been a misuse of taxpayer funds by the department.
The budget still needs to be approved by the Senate next week and signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has line-item veto power.