DENVER Colorados inmate population is about the same as it was in 2004, but the proposed budget for the state Department of Corrections is about $150 million higher than it was eight years ago and its raising questions from lawmakers who want to reduce spending.
Thats obviously a huge disparity there, Rep. Mark Waller, the third-ranking Republican in the House, said this week.
The debate over prisons is expected to heat up in the coming weeks as lawmakers finalize next years budget. It also could play an important role as Republicans look for ways to fund a $98.6 million property-tax break for seniors that Gov. John Hickenlooper and fellow Democrats say the state cant afford without cutting education.
Colorados quarterly revenue forecast expected Monday also will give lawmakers a better idea of how much money they have to spend.
The Corrections Departments budget request is $646 million, about 9 percent of the states general fund. Its about the same portion of the budget taken by higher education, which has been cut repeatedly in recent years.
In 2004, the budget for corrections was nearly $497 million. Back then, there were about 20,700 prisoners in the system, almost exactly the same number projected to be incarcerated in 2013.
During the last five months, the prison population has decreased by 946, and the drop is expected to continue, said Katherine Sanguinetti, department spokeswoman. But she said that doesnt tell the whole story for why the departments spending is increasing, and that the prison population is not reflective of what the budget should be, especially when inflation is factored in.
We dont have any control of some of those costs utility costs, medical costs, transportation. Those are things that we have no control over, she said.
Sanguinetti said about 53 percent of the Corrections Department budget goes to its 6,200 employees. She said expenses for health, dental and life insurance for employees have increased, as has the cost of providing medical treatment for inmates.
The number of inmates has decreased with alternative-court sentences, discretionary parole releases and a decrease in parole revocations, Sanguinetti said. Crime also is down.
Waller said lawmakers are partly responsible for the declining prison population because they passed legislation to reduce felony drug sentences.
Weve reduced the number of prisoners, but they keep asking for more money, he said.
Waller said there are significant discussions going on right now about a potential closure, of a prison.
Republicans have their sights on the new Colorado State Penitentiary II, a prison in rural Cañon City, which houses prisoners in solitary confinement. The number of prisoners in solitary confinement also has declined, Sanguinetti said.
Sen. Mary Hodge, a Democrat in the Joint Budget Committee, said she would be open to closing a prison like CSP II if it has too many empty beds, and its used only for solitary confinement.
If we can find something else to do with the prison, sell it, Id be fine, she said. Im very open to the idea.
Republican Rep. Jon Becker, another member of the budget committee, said he believes there is tremendous savings to be had in the department of corrections.
But he warned about closing a prison without first researching how it would affect a community and whether shuttering a facility will result in savings.
Becker was skeptical of the states decision last year to close Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in rural Bent County, an area that opponents of the closure argued would hurt the local economy for many years.
I think we need to look at all prisons in our whole system and see which one or if any are the more responsible one for us to close or reduce, and I think youll see some movement in the next month to two months as to what thats going to look like, he said.