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April 18, 2006

Insightful commentary on state sentencing realities

Prison_costs A kind reader forwarded this thoughtful commentary about Colorado's "prison spending crisis" that ran in last week's Denver Post.  Anyone interested in sentencing reform issues ought to give the whole piece a read.  Here are just a few highlights:

After several decades of an ambitious incarceration campaign, Colorado's booming prison population has run headlong into the fact that the state can spend only so much on corrections.  Simply put, Colorado faces a prison spending meltdown. This leaves taxpayers with the option of either paying for a hugely expensive long-term prison expansion project, or demanding that lawmakers make sentencing changes to slow the growth of the prison population a main public policy goal....

It now costs roughly $83,000 to build one new prison bed and another $28,000 in annual operations costs. So, the state is looking at a $100 million per year commitment.  Corrections spending is already more than 8.5 percent of state expenditures.

Of the more than 5,500 court commitments to Colorado prisons in 2004, more than 72 percent were classified as non-violent crimes.... Drug incarceration has quadrupled over 20 years to more than 20 percent of the prison population, at an annual cost of $100 million (or one new prison per year).  In 2004, more than 1,300, or greater than 22 percent, of commitments were for drug offenses. For women it is worse: female drug offenders were a full 30 percent of female commitments.

Lawmakers may also want to consider spending even a fraction of the money on treatment as we do on incarceration. The RAND Corporation study "Controlling Cocaine: Supply Versus Demand Programs" concludes each dollar spent on treatment reduces the cost of crime and lost productivity by $7.46.  By contrast, enforcement (arrest, seizure and incarceration) returns just 52 cents. The RAND researchers can be off the mark by half and the result remains that treatment for drug-addicted offenders who commit other crimes to support a habit is more cost-effective strategy than a prison bed....

Parole costs less than $4,000 per offender, while community corrections are a little over $6,000. Compare that to $28,000 for a state prison bed, and every offender who goes from prison to working and paying taxes is a net gain for the rest of us.... Colorado taxpayers [may be] just fine with a prison system crammed full of drug offenders, other non-violent offenders serving long sentences, and potential parolees.  But in the near future they might have to decide how much their taxes will go up, or what state functions they are willing to give up, in order to keep it this way.

April 18, 2006 at 12:07 PM | Permalink


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As a member of the federal criminal defense bar, where we deal with the federal guidelines every day and bemoan their harshness, it is interesting to see the federal sentencing guidelines lauded as more flexible than a state sentencing system. However, this article again makes clear that American criminal justice policies are totally out of whack and failing at every level.

Posted by: Shari Allison | Apr 19, 2006 3:23:24 PM

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