Nearly $700 million of Colorado's budget will be spent this year on prisons in the state - accounting for 8.8 percent of the general fund. That is a significant line item for a service that is both essential and deserving of a closer look, particularly given the budgetary challenges facing the state. A proposal to reduce sentences for certain convictions is at least worth considering.
Senate Bill 286 would lessen jail time for a range of crimes by reclassifying them as lower offenses. It would not change how sex crimes, many violent offenses and capital convictions are handled, but would reduce sentences for many drug, nonviolent and property crimes. The net result of the changes, lawmakers anticipate, could save the state $14 million a year. As such, examining the sentencing structure is an exercise that should be undertaken - if not in the form of SB 286 then in some capacity.
There is a non-economic reason to reconsider Colorado's sentencing structure as well. According to the Pew Center on the States, one in 97 Coloradans is in prison and far more - one in 29 - is either in prison, on parole or on probation. By those figures, most outings to the grocery store, coffee shop, or health club are shared with at least one person involved in the criminal justice system. That suggests the fervor with which we, as a state, incarcerate people may be elevated beyond what is healthy.
It is difficult to conceive that nearly one-third of all Coloradans are hardened criminals in need of incarceration, supervision or some other separation from the general population. Instead, the numbers suggest that the state could benefit from an examination of sentencing practices - something Gov. Bill Ritter advocated in 2007 when he formed the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to consider such reforms. While that committee has been criticized for its slow pace, it is perhaps a more prudent approach to carefully study a range of options among experts in the field.
A legislative solution without such a study may not be the most desirable way to thin the populations of the state's prisons. With public safety as one of the paramount functions of government at any level, any changes to the laws that affect that safety need to be made most carefully. Accordingly, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers is expressing appropriate caution in his opposition to Senate Bill 286. The concepts therein, however, do not deserve wholesale dismissal.
By the same token, some of the measure's advocates' arguments are not sufficient to justify the bill on its face. The Independence Institute - an unlikely ally of the Democrats proposing Senate Bill 286 - supports the measure on the basis that government spending is out-of-control and that as a cost-savings measure, the bill is a good one. That may be, but the argument is too simplistic given the potential ramifications of reducing jail time for convicted criminals.
The answer, as with many things, likely lies somewhere in the middle. Adjusting sentences to make them more reasonable makes sense. Reallocating efforts on rehabilitation is far more cost-effective than a straight punitive approach to crime. Those who have gotten on the wrong path benefit from such opportunities, as does the state budget. For many reasons - human and economic - prison sentences in Colorado deserve review.