Colo. prison population declines sharply

Tough decisions to be made about closures

Colorado closed the brand-new Colorado State Penitentiary II last year and now needs to shut down more prisons as the population shrinks. Enlarge photo

Tracy Harmon/Pueblo Chieftain

Colorado closed the brand-new Colorado State Penitentiary II last year and now needs to shut down more prisons as the population shrinks.

Colorado’s prison population is diminishing so quickly that the state in the coming 18 months could close two to 10 prisons, depending on which facilities are chosen for closure.

“It looks like the whole system should be shrinking,” said state Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, at a recent legislative hearing.

Colorado already is at 7,500 fewer inmates than it once expected in 2013. It has closed three state prisons and stopped using two private prisons.

“We think that is a really, really big deal,” said Roxane White, chief of staff to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Reasons for the drop in prison populations are simple: The state felony crime rate dropped by a third from 2002 to 2011, said Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements. Prosecutors filed a quarter fewer felony charges in the same period.

What’s not as easy to explain is why serious crime is dropping, in Colorado and all over the U.S. Possibilities range from reductions in punishment for marijuana-related crimes to the success of youth and gang-intervention programs to an aging population that has resulted in fewer young people getting in trouble.

In December, there were 2,109 empty beds in prisons across Colorado. Most were in private prisons, and the state no longer is paying for the space. Budget and criminal-justice statisticians are predicting the number of unoccupied beds will rise to 2,600 to 3,600 by June of next year. That larger number represents more beds than are in Colorado’s 10 smallest prisons combined.

However, the choice of which prisons to close is complicated, state corrections officials and legislators say, for a number of reasons:

The state must still have a mix of minimum- to maximum-security facilities.

Some prisons are designed to use fewer guards, which reduces operating costs.

It’s not generally easy for prison staff members to move from one city to another.

Maintenance and energy use varies from prison to prison. Colorado, for example, still operates two prisons that opened more than a century ago.

“We are wrestling with what beds do we not need,” Clements told a legislative committee recently.

The decline in prisoners is good news for the state, which saves tens of millions of dollars in the cost of housing them. But closing prisons can be very bad news for the small towns that rely on them for jobs. Olney Springs in southeastern Colorado, for example, has a population of less than 400. A private prison there has room for 1,700 inmates.

Douglas Wilson, the state’s chief public defender, says the result is going to be prison work-related job losses for small communities.

“Unfortunately, a lot of those smaller communities were sold a bill of goods about, this is going to be good for your community – and it did create an economic boom for them,” Wilson said. “But now, with the populations going down, I think the Legislature’s going to have to make some tough decisions about if they close, and if so, where do they close the prisons.”

Lambert, the senator from Colorado Springs, compared the economic effect of closing prisons on small towns to a military base closure.

Shutting down prisons even can affect local school districts, he said. The choice is so tough that the state has hired a consultant to sort out the issues and recommend closures and other changes, with a report due by June 30.

Clements, who became the state’s corrections chief under Hickenlooper, brought a very different attitude than his predecessors, Wilson said.

Parole and probation officers are giving second chances for minor infringements, such as a single failed drug test or failure to show up for an appointment. Those offenders are not being sent back to prison.

About 900 fewer offenders are having their probation revoked every year, compared with 2005, said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. And more of those probationers are succeeding at staying out of prison, she said.

A new state law also allows prisoners to earn more time off their sentences for good behavior, Clements said. Another new law lowered the penalties for minor drug possession, Wilson said. There no longer is a 24-year sentence for a parolee who walks away from his registered address at a homeless shelter.

The savings to Colorado taxpayers will vary dramatically with the state’s choices about what to cut. Not sending an inmate to a private prison saves the state about $20,000 a year. Closing the Fort Lyon prison in Las Animas saved nearly $27,000 per inmate. Shutting down just one wing at the Trinidad prison has saved only $5,800 per prisoner.

White, Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, told a health conference six weeks ago in Denver that the governor hopes to move the prison savings into health care, including better care in prisons.

That might reduce prison population further, as a third of Colorado’s inmates have mental illnesses. Many ended up in prison because the state closed mental-health institutions over a period of decades and didn’t fund care elsewhere. Some mentally ill people self-medicate with illegal drugs, and end up in trouble with the law. That often creates a classic revolving door that rotates them in and out of prisons.

“We are working very hard to get our people out of jail who have mental-health challenges” and provide them with care, White said. “We all know if we can get those mental-health services in place, we can see cost savings in our jail systems.”

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