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Colorado Prison Population Exploding

Last summer the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, John Suthers, announced to the Colorado Legislature that Colorado's male prison population is growing at its fastest rate ever. In fact, at an average of 1.3% per month in the second quarter of 1999, the prison population grew at twice the rate it did during the same period in 1998. This sudden expansion is the result of conservative appointments to Colorado's parole board by newly elected Republican Governor Bill Owens. The board's chairman, Larry Schwarz, admits their parole denials directly reflect the governor's intentions.

As a result of the parole board's actions, Colorado will now need a 2,500 bed megaprison every two years. That amounts to daily prison construction in perpetuity. It also means less and less of the state's $10 billion annual budget will go to education, health care, road construction and other infrastructure improvements.

Colorado already spent $645 million for new prisons in the 1990's and now needs $85 million per year (or $21.50 from every man, woman and child) just in new construction funds, plus another half-billion annually in operating costs. Since an amendment to the State Constitution limits spending increases to 6% annually, everybody else must lose--especially when corrections is the fifth largest consumer of state revenue and growing at an annual rate of 9%.

By comparison, twenty years ago the CDOC's annual budget was less than $20 million and the prison population was less than 2,000.

Unfortunately, only a few lawmakers are starting to see the light. One that has, state Sen. Bill Thiebaut, says that "we're suffocating the whole system, and the citizens are bearing the burden." He finds funneling money from children's education into prisons a travesty, and calls for a re-evaluation of criminal penalties.

In addition to a more conservative parole board, other factors are cited as contributing to the increase in prison population including: longer prison sentences (e.g., a life sentence was once a minimum ten years to parole eligibility; today it's life without parole), an increase in parole revocations, and an increase in overall state population bringing an increase in crime. On this last point, however, the actual crime rate is admittedly down, according to the same published reports.

It is unlikely Colorado can build its way out of its prison population explosion. That lesson should have been learned by the debacle Colorado went through when it sent prisoners to state facilities in Missouri and Washington in the late 1980's and private facilities in Texas (1994-1997) and Minnesota (1994-1998). There are currently four in-state private prisons housing 2,500 prisoners, or approximately 17% of the total prison population. State Rep. Joyce Lawrence, Chairwoman of the Capital Development Committee, contends that new prisons are being built to take prisoners out of private prisons "then the parole rate goes down and we need private prisons again, but now we don't know if they'll be there." Some of these facilities are now under investigation, including to find out why some female guards are pregnant with prisoners' children. [PLN, Mar. 2000]

One solution is to grant parole to all eligible prisoners and those long past their eligibility dates. The Governor has a different solution. "Governor Owens has never hesitated to say that if we need to build more prisons to hold criminals then that's what we'll do" says Owens' press secretary, Dick Wadhams.

Sources: Rocky Mountain News, Denver Post

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