Colorado’s prison population had increased four-fold up until 2008. The state’s inmate count rose 604 percent from 1980 to 2008 while Colorado’s overall population grew only 59 percent during that time. However, reforms enacted by the Legislature since 2008 have contributed to a stunning reversal of this trend.
Due largely to prison population growth, the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) budget went from $70 million in 1985 to $703 million in 2008.
Colorado, like other states, has a recidivism problem. Just over half of the men and women released from its prisons in fiscal year 2004 returned to the DOC within three years.1 Some 63.7 percent of inmates released from the DOC in fiscal year 2002 were rearrested within 3 years with 25.9 percent of all arrests were for violent crimes.2
Parolees and probationers revoked to prison account for a significant share of prison admissions. In FY 2007, 4,055 individuals entered the DOC (35 percent of total admissions) due to revocation while on parole; about 25 percent (1,008 individuals) had been convicted of new criminal behavior and returned to prison with a new sentence.
In fiscal year 2008, of the 5,222 individuals placed in community corrections residential facilities in Colorado, just over one‐third of these offenders failed this placement, some of whom were then sent to prison.3
In 2007, some 49,448 adults were serving probation sentences in Colorado. Of these, 1,395 had their probation revoked, and were therefore incarcerated, for committing a new crime and 6,269 were revoked for noncompliance with supervision conditions. Approximately half of those arrested for a new crime were sentenced to DOC (747) and another 1,433 were sentenced to DOC for failing supervision conditions. A larger number of failed probationers were sentenced to county jails. Some 4,153 offenders received jail sentences for failure while on supervision while 704 offenders received jail sentences for new crimes committed while on probation.4
Fortunately, in the last couple of years, Colorado policymakers have come together to begin addressing these challenges led by the Independence Institute, the state’s conservative free market think tank. A bipartisan commission was set up to develop data-driven solutions, which led to significant legislation being enacted in 2009 and 2010. For example, HB 1263 utilizes the power of incentives to influence human behavior by allowing inmates to earn up to two days of credit per month for exemplary behavior, such as successfully completing education, treatment, and vocational programs.5 SB 6 was also enacted, which is a common sense measure that will enhance public safety and help inmates released from prison obtain employment and housing by making it easier for them to obtain a state photo identification card.6
In 2010, HB 1352 was enacted, which emphasized diversion to substance abuse and mental health treatment in cases involving low-level drug possession while increasing penalties for selling drugs to minors.7 Also enacted in 2010, HB 1360 is projected to save taxpayers millions of dollars by enhancing the mandatory treatment options available in lieu of prison revocation for parolees who commit a technical violation, but not a new crime. By reallocating $4.5 million of the savings into proven treatment programs for parolees, the legislation is expected to not only save money, but more importantly also reduce crime.
In the middle of 2010, the prison population projections issued by the state concluded the prison population had declined and will continue to decline. The report cited not only demographic factors, but also:
“Probation revocations to prison decreased, possibly as a result of initiatives spearheaded by the state Division of Probation Services to promote the implementation of evidence-based practices in many jurisdictions cross the state..”8
For more information on other criminal justice reform developments in Colorado, check out the Independence Institute’s audio program.9