It’s time for better corrections policies
On a recent visit to the Capitol in Denver, I asked several legislators what issues they saw brewing not only in this session, but also for the next one. There is a lot going on legislatively this session, on topics from renewable energy to emergency contraception. Some of this is due to new possibilities after a change in Governor. At the same time, there is little financial wiggle room in the budget despite Referendum C, which was a very limited and temporary financial fix. Many important issues, such as a Housing Investment Fund, have been put off to future sessions primarily for financial reasons.But one issue kept coming up as an important area for review and action in the next session: Colorado’s corrections policies. Corrections is one of the four big items that takes up 90 percent of Colorado’s budget (the others being education, transportation and health care). Colorado keeps building expensive new prisons, but recidivism rates (repeat crimes within three years after release from prison) are at least 50 percent today in Colorado, compared with 41 percent in 1993. Violent crime rates in Colorado, while below their worst levels of the past, are near 10-year highs. Car theft is near an all-time high. Colorado is hardly alone in its corrections woes. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that prison populations in the U.S. are growing three times faster than general population growth, with a 700 percent increase since 1970. Including local prisons, more than 2.2 million Americans are incarcerated, more than anywhere else in the world.Part of the problem is a widespread attitude that people convicted of crimes can never be punished too much, no matter what the crime, even minor nonviolent drug crimes. Alternative sentencing, education, treatment or re-entry programs are seen by too many people as “soft on crime.” The problem has been compounded by TABOR in Colorado, which led to the elimination of almost all corrections options other than plain incarceration.Only a few crimes are worthy of being locked up for life, so most inmates will be released at some point. In Colorado, they are given the same $100 to restart their lives that they were given in 1973. With no preparation for re-entry, and hostile public attitudes toward ex-cons, what are their chances of becoming productive citizens?More and longer prison sentences don’t “teach people a lesson” and prevent crimethey lead to higher recidivism rates instead, and can even turn minor offenders into more serious criminals. They cost a lot, too (although they make a lot of money for private prison companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group).We need to move beyond useless posturing about what is “soft on crime” or “tough on crime.” Instead, we need to become smart on crime. Colorado can save money and produce better results at the same time with more sensible corrections policies. Connecticut, for example, has eased its prison crowding problems and cut crime at the same time by investing in re-entry programs for inmates and in alternative sentencing such as home confinement.Governor Ritter has said that reducing recidivism rates should be a priority. New Department of Corrections chief Ari Zavaras has said that failing to provide education and treatment in prison is “penny-wise and pound foolish. If we don’t do something when we have them, shame on us.” These are hopeful signs.There are a few corrections-related bills in the current legislative session, including bills for juvenile restorative justice and elimination of the expensive, problematic and rarely-used death penalty. But much more needs to be done. Whether through drug courts, mediation, restorative justice, education and training, examination of racial disparities in incarceration, parole reform, alternative sentencing, changes in mandatory sentencing, treatment programs before and after release from prison, better re-entry programs, or efforts to address the root causes of crime, Colorado’s corrections policies are due for a major overhaul.The Rev. Nathan Woodliff-Stanley is the part-time minister for the High Country Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, which meets in Frisco and has offices in Dillon at (970) 262-0539. He is also the part-time Minister of Social Responsibility for Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden.
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