State spending does not drive the prison population. Rather, just like an entitlement, the prison population drives state spending. The legislature’s ability to affect the prison caseload, and thus the corrections budget, rests in its prerogative to write, and when necessary, re-write the state’s criminal sentencing and parole laws and policies.
In 2010, Colorado lawmakers passed and Governor Ritter signed a half-dozen sentencing and other criminal justice-related bills that were generated out of the work of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ). All of these bills were fairly modest in scope (an appropriate enough approach to most criminal justice reform efforts), but taken together it was the most significant effort at sentencing reform, and thus prison spending reform, in Colorado in the last twenty-five years. Indeed, the last time the Colorado legislature took this big a swipe at sentencing was in 1985 with House Bill 1320, which not only increased the minimum sentences for crimes of violence, but also doubled the maximum penalties for all levels of felony crimes, regardless of the nature of the crime, in Colorado’s presumptive sentencing range. Colorado taxpayers have been paying the price of runaway prison spending, with a less-than-clear public safety benefit, ever since.
The CCJJ is still working, and there will be both more recommendations and more sentencing and criminal justice-related bills in the 2011 Colorado General Assembly. So the Independence Institute is teaming up with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the Pew Center on the States to throw a panel event to find out just what is on tap for sentencing reform in Colorado this year.
The event will be Tuesday, Feb. 8 at 5:00 PM at the University Club, just north of the Colorado State Capitol. Panelists include State Representative and CCJJ commissioner Mark Waller; State Senator and CCJJ drug task force member Pat Steadman; Christie Donner, Executive Director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and CCJJ task force member; Richard Jerome from the Pew Center on the State’s Public Safety Performance Project and yours truly from the Independence Institute.