Lawmakers prisoners of their own making when it comes to budget time
The news reports “Budget haunts legislators” and “Budget riddles Owens.”After all the cuts that have been made the past two years, just where are they going to find another $263 million to balance the budget?I’ll tell you where they should start: corrections. A parole reform bill needs to be introduced that would mandate the release of nonviolent prisoners past their parole eligibility dates.Colorado’s state government collided with a severe recession in 2001 and 2002 that forced brutal cuts in higher education, social services, highways and other budget ideas.The crunch was worsened by the voter-approved Amendment 23, which forced the state to increase K-12 public school funding by an amount equal to the rate of inflation plus 1 percent, forcing deeper cuts everywhere else.State elected officials have seized on crime because it’s an easy issue on the surface.But below the surface, the taxpayer suffers as core programs are cut to fund the cost of corrections. It is estimated that by the year 2010, Colorado’s Department of Corrections will account for 13 percent of the state’s budget.No other state in the country spends that percentage of its budget on corrections. Colorado has twice as many people in prison as Minnesota, but has a million fewer people.That difference results in exactly the $263 million shortfall the state is experiencing this year. In fact, this year amid all the cuts in state-programming, corrections spending increased from $469 million to nearly $500 million.Nearly the same amount of money is spent to incarcerate 20,000 prisoners as the entire social services budget for the state.The problem with that is there aren’t many rabbits left in Colorado’s fiscal hat, because the state has already raided cash funds and used other gimmicks to cope with the shortfalls in the last three years.A parole reform bill would save the state $112 million by downsizing the prison population by mandating the release of nonviolent prisoners that have proven themselves to pose little or no threat to the public.More than 8,000 Colorado prisoners are past their parole eligibility dates.People are serving up to 12 years in prison for being habitual traffic offenders, at a staggering cost of $28,210 per prisoner per year. Compare this to the $3,500 cost of monitoring a nonviolent offender on parole, which creates a savings of $1 million for every 40 prisoners released.The effects of our elected officials tough-on-crime policy has reached the point of overkill. And, it is costing the state dearly when vital programs like education and health care are sacrificed. In the 1960s and 1970s, prisons were prisons. Basically the guys that were in there needed to be. Now, by and large, we have mostly nonviolent drug offenders constituting over half of the prison population.I’m not talking about a free ride for prisoners. I’m talking about taking a hard look at nonviolent offenders, who have by statutory law, reached the point where they are eligible for parole, and mandate their release to parole supervision. The public must embrace nonviolent offenders release anyway. Why not sooner than later?Passing a parole reform bill is a prudent budgetary measure.
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