Colorado Prison Population Declines, Drug Courts Cited as One Reason
In 2006, state researchers estimated Colorado's prisons would be bursting with 29,443 inmates by 2013.
Now it appears they were off by nearly 8,000 prisoners — off in a good way. Fresher predictions say Colorado will hold only 21,662 people in 2013, part of a steady decline in prison populations nationwide that defies previous recession trends and underlines a systemic decrease in crime.
Those now-nonexistent prisoners would empty the Limon prison eight times over.
Instead of property and drug crime rising with high unemployment and economic desperation, crime rates and incarcerations continue a steady decline. Anti-recidivism efforts by Gov. Bill Ritter and governors in other states appear to be gaining traction in keeping repeat offenders away from expensive prison cells.
"It's an absolutely fascinating period for researchers, because of the break in the pattern we're seeing," said Rick Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist and president of the American Society of Criminology. "And it's an absolutely heartening period for all of us, because of public safety."
Gov. Bill Ritter and budget officials say the state is already reaping benefits, aside from falling crime rates, through a long-awaited reprieve from constant budget increases. Part of Ritter's February package of deficit-closing proposals included $19.4 million in corrections savings due to lower-than-expected prisoner counts.
At a cost of about $20,000 a year to house a Colorado prisoner, the prisoner shortfall means the state would be spending at least $160 million less than predicted to hold prisoners in 2013.
Ritter, a former Denver prosecutor, said he has watched the number of state prisoners balloon from 3,000 when he began his career in 1981 to beyond 20,000 and to predictions of nearly 30,000 in coming years. The recent drop in projections means "we're doing a lot of things right," Ritter said.
An aging population, smarter recidivism programs, drug courts and parole reforms all contribute to the improvement, he said. The knee-jerk, lock-them-up mentality of politicians and the public has also transformed, Ritter said.
Colorado's crime rate dropped 8 percent in 2008, the third time it had dropped since 2005.
"People have come to understand the intersections with drug addiction and mental-health issues," he said. Ritter added, though, that putting more violent criminals away in the 1980s and '90s also improved crime rates and community stability.