Are Too Many Inmates Leaving Prison Early?

February 19 2008, 9:09 AM

The Denver Post poses that question in an article about inmates released on parole during Gov. Bill Ritter's tenure. Continuing a trend that began at the end of Gov. Owen's last term, about 115 more inmates were released on parole in 2007 than 2006. Critics point to Ritter's appointment of Democrats as parole board members. But his first appointment wasn't until March, 2007. 542 discretionary paroles were granted the month he took office. So the first quarter statistics have nothing to do with him. Nor is Gov. Ritter putting a bunch of "soft on crime" liberals on the parole board.

[His]appointees include former Denver Police Chief David Michaud as chairman, former Denver County Court Judge Celeste C de Baca, and former victim advocate Rebecca Oakes, whose mother was a murder victim.

More to the point, rather than ratcheting up the politics of fear, critics should be praising Gov. Ritter for his smart efforts to reduce recidivism.

Ritter is pumping more money into drug, alcohol and job-training programs aimed at reducing the likelihood that ex-prisoners will reoffend....Soon after Ritter took office, he amended his Republican predecessor's budget request by asking for $8 million for drug-treatment programs and mental-health and parole services.... Ritter's budget request for the next fiscal year would pump $5.9 million into programs aimed at reducing the number of returning inmates. ....Severe budget cuts in 2001-03 caused the Department of Corrections to slash $13 million in programs, said department spokeswoman Alison Morgan. Part of the reason discretionary releases are rising is that programs that help inmates succeed after prison are being restored, she said.

Ari Zavaras , Denver's former police chief who now heads the Department of Corrections, says:

[T]he extra money already is having an effect. Prisons have more money this year to provide medicine to mentally unstable inmates as they walk out the door.

States around the country have been recognizing that the get-tough-on-crime policies enacted in the 90's have failed to make us safer and are prohibitively expensive. America cannot jail itself out of its crime problem. America's prison system has become a costly and harmful failure. I recommend that anyone interested in this topic read the report released in November, Unlocking America (pdf.) It's about why and how we should reduce America's prison population. The authors of the report have spent their careers studying crime and punishment. In addition to providing solutions that will both reduce our prison population and keep our communities safe, they point out the three biggest myths of the tough on crime crowd:

  • Myth #1:There are "career criminals" we can identify and whose imprisonment will reduce crime;
  • Myth #2: Tougher penalties are needed to protect the public from "dangerous" criminals.
  • Myth #3: Tougher penalties will deter criminals

I hope the critics don't sway Gov. Ritter. He's on the right path here.

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