Colorado’s prison population was projected to balloon. Now analysts aren’t so sure.

Said one: “If we can’t get our data systems talking to each other, we’re going to be having the same conversation year after year.”

Dean Williams, the new director of Colorado's Department of Corrections, tours the Centennial South prison for the first time on July 19, 2019. The prison can fit more than 900 people and could be used if the state prison population gets too high. But Williams says he's committed to a
Dean Williams, the new director of Colorado's Department of Corrections, tours the Centennial South prison for the first time on July 19, 2019. The prison can fit more than 900 people and could be used if the state prison population gets too high. But Williams says he's committed to a "philosophical" shift that, in theory, promises to limit that population growth. (Photo by Alex Burness)

Colorado’s methods of projecting how many inmates will fill its correctional facilities long have been flawed, leading to overcounts that can cost taxpayers and make it unclear whether various criminal justice programs are working, frustrated lawmakers said Monday.

That was one upshot of a daylong hearing, during which criminal justice officials from various corners of the system expressed a lack of confidence in the forecasting of inmate populations. 

“This specific modeling has been off for years,” said state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and chair of the Prison Population Management Interim Study Committee. That the governor’s office and General Assembly continue to rely on iffy data, she said, is something, “we really need to address.” 

“At the end of the day, the projections, I think, are really important because it does tell us before we’re in crisis that we need to have a policy shift,” Herod added.

Yearly projections for the Colorado prison population inform all kinds of decisions by the state legislature: Where and when to add new capacity. Which programs to maintain and at what funding levels. And — as was up for debate earlier this year — whether to open full facilities to accommodate forecasted booms.

Among Monday’s revelations: In December of 2018, the state Division of Criminal Justice projected Colorado’s DOC population would swell to near 25,000 by 2025. Just six months later, in May, that forecast was adjusted to about 21,000.

By the time that adjusted number came out, lawmakers had already passed a flurry of criminal justice reforms meant, in part, to stave off projected crowding. One bill, which Gov. Jared Polis supported and signed, called for the reopening of a section of an empty high-security prison in Cañon City, known as Centennial South, or CSP II.

Lawmakers previously were torn on reopening the prison, which was built for solitary confinement, but this year they agreed the prison could be used to house overflow should the state’s prisons reach capacity, as projected. More than a $1 million in taxpayer-funded renovation on Centennial South is already underway in anticipation of that scenario.

State analysts shared all kinds of data with the committee on Monday, most of which came from the last decade, during which the inmate population has gradually decreased from about 23,000 at its peak in 2009 to about 21,000 today. This data, plus information shared at future committee meetings, will help determine which prison-related bills lawmakers pursue in 2020.

Vance Roper, a senior legislative analyst for the state, warned, however, that the pursuit of effective policy-making will continue to be threatened by inadequate data coordination among various levels of the Colorado criminal justice system.

“We have one speaking Russian, one speaking Chinese, one speaking English … and then we’re wondering why we don’t have the data,” Roper told the committee. “If we can’t get our data systems talking to each other, we’re going to be having the same conversation year after year.”

Lawmakers appear to be proceeding with caution for now because they’re not sure whether they can entirely trust the numbers.

On a tour of Centennial South and other prisons last week, DOC brass, including Director Dean Williams — he was appointed by Polis and formerly held the same job in Alaska — told The Independent that 1.6% of inmate beds for men are currently vacant. They said that gives the state more breathing room than it’s had in a couple years.

And there’s reason to believe the numbers will keep improving, which could mean that no overflow beds will be needed any time soon. For one, between March and June of 2019, Colorado saw discretionary parole releases go up by 54% over the same period in 2018, while returns to prison for parole violators fell by 29%. This is significant because about 30% of Colorado prisoners are behind bars because they violated terms of parole or probation, according to state data.

These shifts coincided with new appointments of parole board members made by Polis, the first-year governor. Like Williams, Polis has said he doesn’t want to add prison capacity in Colorado if that can be avoided. What that outlook means for Centennial South is not yet clear.

As officials discussed Monday, part of the reason that the projections can be misleading is that they don’t account for upcoming bills designed to reduce the prison population. 

“Anytime these projections are produced, there’s a reaction,” said Lynda Harrison, who works in research and statistics for the Division of Criminal Justice. “Legislation is passed (and) there’s an effort to do something about it.”

This explanation, some lawmakers said, doesn’t fully account for the discrepancy between projection and reality. Herod noted that some of the reforms passed between the December and May projections haven’t even gone into effect yet.

Much of Monday’s session was devoted to discussion of strategies to keep reducing the prison population. Williams summarized some of his ideas in a presentation of what he called “Wildly Important Goals.”

In addition to saying the prison experience should be gentler and less traumatic in general, Williams says he wants to see prisoners better prepared to re-enter society, which he hopes would, among other benefits, reduce their chances of recidivism. He told the committee he thinks inmates — particularly those close to their release date — should be given greater privileges and responsibilities, including dignified prison jobs, as they progress through their sentences. 

Williams mentioned a recent pilot program that let prisoners work on a hemp farm in Sterling before re-entering society. This was a relatively radical move because the work was off DOC grounds and paid the prisoners minimum wage. Most prison jobs pay just cents per day.

“I think our biggest impact may not even require more money, may not even require more legislation,” Williams said of his goals. “This is a philosophical issue and one that really directs us to look at what other states have done, what other countries have done. … And it’s going to challenge us, and I think that’s a good thing.” 

Williams floated the idea of releasing certain older and very sick inmates early, if they are deemed low risks to reoffend. The state estimates it costs $38,000 per year to keep someone in prison.

Maureen Cain from the Office of the State Public Defender urged the committee to apply that risk-minded thinking to the system in general, as one way to lower the prison population. About 65% of people who come into the Colorado DOC’s custody are there on non-violent offenses, she noted.

“I do think we should ask the question: who should be in prison?” Cain said. 

Lawmakers, Williams and Polis are asking that very question. Some more solid data, Herod said, would help them answer it.

“When we see trends and we’re not able to drill down and say why is this happening, where is this trend coming from,” she said, “that does bring into question the entire model and the people doing the modeling.”

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