Governor Bill Ritter understands that in order to reduce crime and its economic cost to society, we need to focus more on prevention and reducing recidivism. Today, he unveiled his 2009 Crime-Prevention and Recidivism-Reduction Package. The basics are prevention services for youth; diversion; transition; and substance abuse treatment, and offender education. The program will cost $10.6 million next year, but over five years, Ritter projects it will save us $380.5 million. ($336 million of that amount represents savings from eliminating a plan to expand the state prison facility in Trinidad.) Ritter also contends the program will result in a decrease of our inmate population over the next several years. According to Ritter, ten years ago Colorado housed 12,647 offenders. Today, there are 23,066 inmates, at a cost of $25,000 a year per inmate. Eight of every ten inmates have a substance abuse problem. Fifty percent of Colorado inmates return to prison within three years of release. Here are some more statistics from the Governor’s Fact Sheet (pdf.)

Ritter presented the plan today to the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. According to the Rocky Mountain News, Ritter also endorsed two other smart reform ideas:

The area of technical violations needs reform, [Ritter] said, noting that many felons return to prison not because they commit new crimes but because they technically violate their probation. He agreed such breaches could be dealt, for example, with jail days, “not always the sledgehammer of a prison bed.” He also liked the idea of offering inmates opportunities for higher education, subject to “fiscal realities.”

Building more prisons has never been a smart response to crime. Ritter’s plan to eliminate the $338 million planned expansion of the prison in Trinidad is an important step toward correcting our over-reliance on incarceration, which has failed to reduce crime while costing us enormous amounts of money. In September, the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice made its own recommendations (pdf) for being smarter in addressing crime and recidivism. Ritter agrees with some, though not all, of them. Almost all are improvements over our current policies. It’s unfortunate that criminal justice issues have received so little attention from our candidates this year. Ritter will hold a press conference on his plan Sunday, when it goes to the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee. Hopefully, once the elections are behind us, our legislators will focus their attention on finding smarter solutions to keeping us safe while enhancing social justice and saving us money.