Work release cut is a terrible idea

Due to declining tax revenue, especially from property taxes as assessed valuations in the county have dropped, Mesa County elected officials will have to make some difficult decisions regarding funding of county programs for next year.

Gutting or eliminating the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department work release program shouldn’t be among them.

As reported by The Daily Sentinel’s Paul Shockley on Sunday, Sheriff Stan Hilkey said the program is one thing that may have to go if, as early county budget figures suggest, his deparment will face a funding cut of $325,000 in next year’s budget.

There may be a certain amount of brinksmanship at work here, as the Mesa County commissioners attempt to cut the budget to align with revenue projections, while other elected officials such as Hilkey fight to keep as much money for their departments as possible.

Even so, we hope the sheriff and the commissioners are able to work out these issues in such a way that the work release program continues to operate in a robust manner. Eliminating the program or cutting it to next to nothing would be a mistake that would cost Mesa County taxpayers more in the long term than any short-term savings it might realize.

The work release program, which is part of the Alternative Sentencing Unit, has been a highly successful initiative created to reduce costs and prevent first-time offenders — especially drug users — from becoming recurring criminals.

The program saves money because it is less costly to house an offender in the Alternative Sentencing Unit than in the high-security Mesa County jail. Additionally, those in the work release program help defer the costs by paying a small amount of rent as part of their sentences.

Less obvious costs are avoided because the offender is allowed to keep working and paying taxes. If he or she has a family, the work release program helps keep the family together and reduces the need for public assistance. Studies have also shown that recidivism rates are higher among offenders placed in a general jail than those sentenced to work release.

On top of that, sentencing those who qualify to work release reduces the number of prisoners in the county jail and delays the day when county taxpayers will be faced with adding more space to the jail.

Additionally, if the work release program were not available, Mesa County would likely have to end its three-year old Evidence-Based Decision Making initiative, a promising program aimed at further reducing recidivism.

Mesa County is looking to trim its budget across the board by roughly 5 percent, to $148 million. No department, including the sheriff’s department, should be immune from the budget pain. But gutting a program that saves the county money in the long run while reducing crime and assisting families would be the very definition of penny wise and pound foolish.


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