In 2012, the adult prison population in Colorado declined for the third year in a row. As a result, four prisons - two run by the state and two run by private corporations - have closed and a fifth is slated for closure early next year. The Colorado Department of Corrections has also closed several 100-bed units at additional facilities as the state figures out how to manage the complexity downsizing a prison system.
The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition has pushed for changes in the state’s sentencing, parole and drug policies for more than a decade. “For a group like ours, reducing the prison population and actually closing prisons is the ultimate goal,” said Christie Donner, the Coalition’s executive director. “This is the result of many years of effort, sometimes measured in baby steps that could feel so frustratingly insignificant at the time.”
Since its inception in 1999, CCJRC has actively tried to change how people in Colorado think and talk about criminal justice reform. The group has also tried to change policies and bring about desired reforms.
A key priority for the group has been to decrease the number of adults in prison. Reducing mass incarceration is a goal CCJRC shares with the Public Welfare Foundation’s Criminal Justice Program and the Foundation has supported CCJRC in this effort since 2008.
With more than 100 diverse organizations and faith communities, totaling about 6,800 individual members in the state, CCJRC has been very influential and has pushed for important changes.
In addition to policy reforms, the Coalition has emphasized the real time needs and concerns of those caught in the criminal justice system – or those coming out of it – such as increased funding for services such as substance abuse treatment, housing and job training.
Early on, the Coalition’s efforts to change hearts and minds led some opponents to dub the group, “hug a thug”, a label Donner has never refuted. “A lot of our people actually do hug thugs because they are family members.”
Such close encounters with the criminal justice system have made the issues more personal for coalition members and also kept them focused on making things better.
Over time, many of these same opponents came to see CCJRC as a knowledgeable and trustworthy player in the debate and design of criminal justice and prison policies in Colorado. “People just needed to understand better what CCJRC was advocating for and why,” explains Donner. “I always felt it was our responsibility to reach out to people who thought we were fringe, try to establish a relationship and open lines of communication, even if we didn’t always – or even rarely – agree on anything.”
During the past decade, Colorado and CCJRC have endured the typical momentum shifts in criminal justice. In the 1990’s, Donner says that state policymakers were stuck in a “tough on crime” framework, much like their counterparts in other states across the country.
But in his first State of the State address in 2007, then newly elected Democratic Governor Bill Ritter, a former district attorney in Denver, announced that a priority of his administration would be to reduce recidivism.
“With this address before a joint session of the Legislature, he reframed the conversation from ‘being tough on crime’ to ‘what works’ to reduce crime and recidivism,” Donner recalls. It turned out to be a watershed political moment and CCJRC was ready to capitalize on it.
Gov. Ritter, who has since left office after declining to run for a second term, pushed for legislation to create a state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which has been the source of much of the reforms enacted in Colorado and with which CCJRC has been actively involved.
The following are among the recent legislative accomplishments that the Commission, CCJRC and others have pushed for:
reducing penalties for drug use or possession, redirecting cost savings in corrections to substance abuse and mental health treatment;
expanding the use of earned time and other incentives for people in prison and on parole;
requiring the use of individualized risk assessments to help judges determine appropriate sentences for each convicted offender in order to reduce the likelihood that the offender will commit more crimes after being released;
making changes to parole to clarify eligibility criteria, encourage more substance abuse treatment for parolees and reduce the number of parolees who are sent back to prison because of technical parole violations;
reducing barriers to employment for people with criminal records.
Donner said CCJRC is now trying to learn from other states, such as New York, Michigan and Texas, about the challenges of closing prisons despite a shrinking prison population. In Colorado, there are also private prisons in the mix. To compensate for the decreasing number of Colorado prisoners, these private prison corporations have been filling their cells by increasing the number of prisoners from other states, including Idaho and Alaska.
Earlier this year, the State Legislature commissioned a prison utilization study to examine and make recommendations on additional prison closures, the use of private prisons and staffing needs for the Department of Corrections. So far, the Department has been able to time closures so that staff could be reassigned. But at a time of continuing economic uncertainty, the Department still may face layoffs, private prison operators are losing profits and rural community budgets that have been bolstered by prisons are threatened.
“There is a lot more complexity in downsizing a prison than in growing it,” Donner observes. “Advocating and mobilizing for effective drug or parole policies constitute one level of struggle. Downsizing a prison system where people might lose jobs or corporations might lose profits is a whole new level of struggle. I actually think our hardest work is ahead of us because those with a financial stake in the status quo will fight downsizing tooth and nail.”