Locking down rising prison costs

Gov. Bill Ritter wants to spend $10.6 million over the next two years in hopes of saving $380 million in prison costs in the coming five years.

Spending a little to save a lot is nearly always a sensible notion, so long as the anticipated savings are real and not pie-in-the-sky.

The vast majority of the savings in the governor’s prison reform program would come from one source — not building the planned $336 million addition to the state’s Trinidad Correctional Facility. That’s not pie-in-the-sky or smoke-and-mirrors savings. That’s real steel, bricks and concrete, the money for which wouldn’t be spent.

To achieve that, Ritter’s plan aims at reducing recidivism — crimes committed by those recently released from prison — which has been creeping up in Colorado in the past few years. It also calls for more prevention programs for troubled youths, and more diversion and substance-abuse programs for people convicted.

The goal is to reverse the forecast of 4,444 new state inmates in the next five years, and actually reduce the prison population by 521 inmates in that time.

That’s an unquestionably ambitious goal. But such programs are not without precedent. Here in Mesa County, a program to treat methamphetamine addicts, rather than sending them immediately to jail, has helped stem the growth in the county jail population. And, when 80 percent of people in state prisons are known to have substance-abuse problems, dealing with addiction clearly must be a top priority.

But this isn’t as easy as saying, “Don’t lock people up just for drug use.” Prosecutors will tell you that few people go to prison today for first-time drug possession. Nearly always, there are other crimes involved — often violent crimes — or multiple offenses.

Ritter is a former prosecutor himself. He understands that some criminals simply need to be behind bars. And he repeatedly stated when he announced his program that public safety will remain the paramount concern.

But that doesn’t mean we should never re-examine how we do things — who is incarcerated and for how long, and whether society would be better served if some of those incarcerated could be treated outside the prison walls.

Ritter’s reform program, which he hopes to dovetail with cost-cutting recommendations from the Colorado Criminal and Juvenile Justice Commission, is being presented to the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee this weekend as part of his overall 2009-2010 budget.

These are difficult economic times, and finding new money within the budget will be tough. But the Legislature should not be penny-wise and pound-foolish regarding state prisons.


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