A huge difference between former Gov. Bill Owens and current Gov. Bill Ritter is that the former refused to consider sentencing reform while the latter is open to it. Colorado’s prisons have been bulging at the seams for years. The cost is enormous:

The state expects to add more than 6,000 prisoners by 2011, requiring $800 million in prison construction. That figure is more than twice the amount Colorado expects to have for all capital construction other than roads during that period of time. A number of officials have concluded the state cannot afford it.

The tough on crime stance of the 80’s and 90’s just doesn’t work any more. We need to find a way to lower the incidence of new crimes (through prevention) and reduce the risk of recidivism (through rehabilitation programs.) We also need to stop incarcerating non-violent drug offenders and finding a way to get them into treatment and off of drugs.

According to Christie Donner, director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, the reasons for the rise in inmate population include:

  • Many prisoners serving longer sentences.
  • Prisoners not being released early on parole.
  • Prisoners returning to prison on parole violations and on new charges .

Gov. Ritter is considering proposals to establish a sentencing reform commission to study the issue. He should be encouraged, prodded and propelled into doing it. Here’s a good item for consideration for the Commimssion:

Mike Krause, of the Independence Institute, repeated his group’s call for two changes to reduce Colorado’s prison costs: Halve the sentences for drug possession and reduce the lowest class of drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. When it was brought up in the debate over Referendum C in 2005, “You would have thought the sky had fallen” from the reaction, he said.

Let’s use our jails for the most dangerous among us and use the money saved to train the inmates coming out to lead productive, law-abiding lives and to provide drug treatment to those who need it. Let’s also encourage employers to hire ex-offenders so they can support themselves once they get out without resorting to a life of economic crime. I wish there was a way to prevent landlords from accessing criminal records for non-violent crimes. Ex-offenders also need a place to live and housing discrimination against them is counterproductive and another reason our recidivism rate is high.