New report highlights racial disparity in Colorado’s booming prison population

The total number of incarcerated Coloradans is expected to grow by 38 percent by 2025. The ACLU has proposed ways to reverse that trend.

Photo by Sean Hobson, via Flickr: Creative Commons

In 2017, roughly one in 28 adult black men in Colorado was in prison. Put another way, African Americans made up 18 percent of the prison population and only 4 percent of the state’s adult population, an incarceration rate that was seven times higher than the rate for white Coloradans.

Latinos in Colorado fared little better. Latinos made up one-fifth of adult Coloradans, but nearly one-third of adult inmates in the state prison system.

The numbers come from a recently released ACLU report on Colorado, part of a national campaign aimed at “cutting the nation’s incarcerated population in half and combating racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”

The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice estimates that the more than 20,000 people in the state’s prisons currently will jump to 27,770 by 2025. The main driver of that growth is an expected increase in the total number of arrests and filings of cases to court, due in large part to an increase in arrests for drug possession, a rise in the ratio of arrests to filings, a growing population and more vehicle thefts.

According to the Campaign for Smart Justice’s report, released earlier this month, if its proposed reforms are made, Colorado’s prison population would be reduced by more than 9,000 people by 2025. The gradual application of those reforms, the report estimates, would lead to a total savings of $675 million. The current prison population cost Colorado taxpayers more than $425 million for 2017-2018, not counting management and other costs, which puts that number near $1 billion.

The report’s suggested reforms include:

  • Reducing sentence lengths by 60 percent across nine categories of criminal offense — including assault, burglary, drug offenses and public order violations — resulting in the lion’s share of the 9,000 inmate reduction.
  • “Evaluating prosecutors’ charging and plea bargaining practices” to eliminate discrimination.
  • Reducing the use of pretrial detention and eliminating “wealth-based incarceration” — as minorities disproportionately affected by poverty often can’t meet bail.
  • Ending overpolicing in communities of color.
  • Eliminating incarcerations for drug possession.
  • Moving funding from law enforcement and corrections to community social service providers.
  • Changing the system of charging and sentencing of drug users, specifically encouraging substance abuse treatment as an alternative to incarceration and community programs as diversionary tactics before people are booked.  
  • Increasing releases to parole and the use of community corrections beds, keeping non-violent prisoners out of the system.
  • Strengthening the requirements of the 2015 Community Law Enforcement Action Reporting [CLEAR] Act, citing the Judicial Department collection of information on race but not ethnicity — meaning that many Hispanic defendants are classified as white, causing racial disparities to be underestimated. In 2016 this meant that Hispanics represented 22 percent of the Colorado population, but only 6 percent of court cases statewide were classified as Hispanic in the data system, according to the Colorado Division of Public Safety.

“While we’re reducing mass incarceration and while we’re working toward that 50 percent goal, we’re also doing it in a way that decreases — and certainly doesn’t increase — racial disparities in the system,” John Krieger, director of communications and advocacy for the ACLU of Colorado, said. “So if you reach the goal of 50 percent but you have not addressed or even increased the amount of racial disparity, then it is not a success.”

“The disparity in sentencing along racial lines is something no one denies,”  Hassan Latif, president of the board of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said, responding to the report’s findings.

He argued that “evaluating prosecutors” may be the most critical recommendation. “When you start talking about the prosecutors, they perhaps are the most powerful entity in this equation we’re talking about, because they are the ones who make the decisions about who to charge and what cases go forward. And that’s definitely done with a degree of established bias if you look at all the data.

The Campaign used data from the National Corrections Reporting Program as a baseline of projected prison population through 2025. It then used a model in which the recommendations would be applied over time to determine the effect on overall prison population.

Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety [DPS], zeroed in on the CLEAR Act and problems with how race and ethnicity are reported in data systems. The issue, he said, has been one that the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice has not been able to solve.

“The state doesn’t own most of this data. Most of it is owned on a local level,” Hilkey said, pointing out that local systems use different codes and systems to record that data.  

Hilkey said the department has also considered another recommendation in the report: reduction in the use of pre-trial detention. The justice system formed three task forces to look at other models that have been implemented and is considering reducing the reliance on cash bail, he said.

Christie Donner, the executive director of the CCJRC, said she agrees with the ACLU’s recommendations to shift funding to community-based service providers, something the CCJRC already works on with the Colorado Legislature. Donner said Colorado should allow the community to play a more direct and significant role in public safety.

“Then you can eliminate a lot of these downstream problems like mass incarceration and racial disparity,” she said.  

Related: Colorado House approves budget that cuts spending for private prisons despite projected rise in inmate population

The CCJRC spearheaded three bills to fund community-based outreach programs. One is the Work and Gain Employment and Education Skills program, passed in 2014, that funds community and faith-based organizations to help people released from prison with housing, employment and with other transitional needs — targeting recidivism along with helping people coming out of prison get back on their feet.

Another, the 2017 Community Crime Prevention Initiative, was passed in 2017. That initiative takes parole reform dollars and invests them in community loan and grant programs in Aurora and Colorado Springs for a pilot program “to support economic development and community services.”

The third was the Crime Survivors Grant Program and Presumptive Parole bill. Signed by the governor in May of this year, it created grants for community programs to provide support services for crime victims. The bill was inspired by a 2018 report by the CCJRC on crime survivors in the Denver area that found that African Americans are “34 percent more likely and Latinos are 38 percent more likely, respectively, than white people, to report having been the victim of a violent crime.” It also found that those victimized are more likely to be convicted of a crime themselves, and there is a gap in the support services for these victims, especially black and Latino men.

The Urban Institute, a Washington think tank focused on economic and social policy research, partnered with the ACLU on the report. It has compiled the data from the 2015 National Corrections Reporting Program, which collects data on those admitted to and released from prison. It then forecasts based on changes in admission rates and sentence lengths for different categories of crime, including drug offenses and property crimes into an interactive “forecaster.”


The Urban Institute’s Prison Population Forecaster.

 

The tool uses data from 2011 to 2015, when Colorado’s prison population was falling, as its baseline. It then applies its policy changes across the board to come up with the scenario of what might have been had the policies been applied earlier. Users can apply different policies such as reducing the admissions of drug offenders to see how prison population would be affected through 2025.

Krieger said the ACLU has seen significant reductions in prison populations in states that have started to implement policy reforms to cut incarcerations similar to those found in the Campaign’s report. He cited New Jersey, which had a 26 percent decline in the state prison population between 1999 and 2012.

“We welcome cooperation with state agencies, with lawmakers, with judges, prosecutors and law enforcement,” Krieger said. “And we look forward to working with them toward meeting a goal of reducing mass incarceration across the state.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. “The Campaign (for Smart Justice) is dedicated to cutting the nation’s incarcerated population in half and combating racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”

    That statement suggests two goals:

    – cutting the nation’s incarcerated population in half
    – combating racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

    But in reality the ACLU has only one goal: combating racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

    While New Jersey succeeded in reducing its prison population by 26 percent the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice report was highly critical of that seemingly very impressive accomplishment:

    “New Jersey, for example, is often heralded as one of the most successful examples of reversing mass incarceration, passing justice reforms that led to a 26 percent decline in the state prison population between 1999 and 2012. However, the state did not intentionally target racial disparities in incarceration and, in 2014, Black people in New Jersey were still more than 12 times as likely to be imprisoned as white people — the highest disparity of any state in the nation.

    Ending mass incarceration is critical to eliminating racial disparities, but it’s not sufficient without companion efforts that take aim at other drivers of racial inequities outside of the criminal justice system. Reductions in disparate imprisonment rates require implementing explicit racial justice strategies.”

    Which begs the question: What exactly is the ACLU’s real goal?

    For John Krieger, director of communications and advocacy for the ACLU of Colorado the answer is clear “if you reach the goal of 50 percent (reductions in prison population) but you have not addressed or even increased the amount of racial disparity, then it is not a success.”

    So the Campaign for Smart Justice is in reality a Campaign for Social Justice.

    So why not just say that?

    Well,cost reduction is one of the reasons. The ACLU is telling Colorado if its proposed reforms are made “Colorado’s prison population would be reduced by more than 9,000 people by 2025. The gradual application of those reforms, the report estimates, would lead to a total savings of $675 million. The current prison population cost Colorado taxpayers more than $425 million for 2017-2018, not counting management and other costs, which puts that number near $1 billion.”

    But while selling the money savings aspects to Colorado in reality the ACLU is only concerned with the social justice aspect. Remember, Mr. Krieger said “if you reach the goal of 50 percent (reductions in prison population) but you have not addressed or even increased the amount of racial disparity, then it is not a success.”

    New Jersey proved you can do one without the other.

    We know how the ACLU defines success. What we don’t know is how Colorado defines it.

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