EDITORIAL: Get Out of Jail, Free… Part Six

Read Part One

Research compiled over the last several years indicates that incarceration has a dramatic impact on the future economic mobility of both the offender and their family… The family income of an incarcerated individual is 22% lower in the year after incarceration than in the year prior…

— ‘Corrections Spending in Colorado’ by Timothy Griesmer, Institute of Public Policy Studies, University of Denver, 2011

American society, as a whole, pays a rather high price to satisfy our desire to punish offenders. Not only do we spend thousands of tax dollars per year for each person we keep in jail — we also pay out many more thousands of dollars in public assistance to the offender and his family, due to the damage caused to the offender’s job prospects.

The offenders caught in our system of punishment pay an even higher price — and sadly enough, are likely to repeat the same crime again.

And again.

One of the things I love about living in a small town like Pagosa Springs: we can meet face to face with the folks in charge of spending our tax dollars — folks who live just down the road — and have a serious conversation about the future of our community.

We can talk, for example, about whether the community needs a new $28 million ‘Justice Center.’ Or, in particular, about a new $8 million County detention center.

Here’s a quote from the 46-page study written by Timothy Griesmer that kicked off this installment:

Over the last several decades, the incarceration rate in the state of Colorado grew at a rate which outpaced the rest of the country, calculated at 5% above the national average in 2006. As a consequence, one of the most rapidly and relentlessly growing budget items in the state of Colorado is the budget allocation for corrections, which in FY 2011-12 equated to 15.2% of general fund expenditures.

In spite of the disproportionate amount of the budget being spent on corrections, state agencies still claim that additional money is necessary to reach ideal funding scenarios. The limitations on raising additional revenue created by Colorado’s TABOR laws force policy makers to cut funding out of other budget items to meet corrections requirements, leading to the phenomenon of crowding out in other areas of spending…

On 2011, when Mr. Griesmer wrote this study, about one out of every five adults incarcerated in the state of Colorado were guilty of a nonviolent drug offense, such as the possession or sale of marijuana. Within this category, the majority of these offenders were eventually sent back to prison for a repeat offense. Once released, these drug offenders typically demonstrate diminished employment prospects — and increased dependence on public assistance programs, according to Mr. Griesmer’s research.

His also wrote:

… there is no clear benefit to the state in terms of preventing drug possession or trafficking by the isolation of these individuals, as consumption of controlled substances is a uniquely inelastic market.

In other words, you can lock up as many drug offenders as you want. The supply of drugs will continue to flow. And so will the tax dollars, into a failed “corrections” system.

According to the September 2011 edition of The Colorado Outlook published by the Colorado Office of State Planning and Budgeting:

“An historic recession that began in 2008 combined with higher demands on state services has laid bare a difficult and persistent structural gap in the General Fund budget.”

Between fiscal year 2007-08 and fiscal year 2011-12, Colorado’s state revenues decreased by almost 8%, triggering a series of significant budget cuts to most sectors of public spending, including higher education and K- 12 education. Overall, General Fund appropriations were reduced by about 5% over that span of time. Every sector of state spending was reduced — with two exceptions. Health and human services saw a rise in spending of more than 7% — an increase that can likely be attributed to an increased demand for Medicaid services, coupled with the effects of an aging population.

The other increase was seen in “Public Safety and Courts” — corrections, public safety, and the judiciary. These departments collectively increased by 6%.

Back home in Archuleta County, two members of the Board of County Commissioners made a fascinating decision last September. We know from recent County budgets that it had been costing the taxpayers about $1 million per year to operate the County jail — up until a rain event in April 2015 caused flooding on the 30-year-old detention center.

The BOCC made the decision, following that roof leak, to abandon the jail and ask the taxpayers to build a brand new detention center, at an estimated cost of $28 million. Assuming a 4% general obligation bond for a 20-year term, this $28 million facility would have cost the taxpayers about $560,000 per year just in interest payments. Total cost, for keeping people locked up, would be closer to $1.5 million per year.

Thus, while the cost of incarceration nationally continues to climb at a rate of around 5% per year, two members of the Archuleta BOCC decided that the cost to local taxpayers, for incarcerating drug users and other offenders, should increase at a rate of 150%.

That $28 million dollar plan has been since been discarded, as a result of a proposed donation of property by the Fred Harman Art Museum. We do not yet know what the new plan might cost. We can be assured it will amount to more than a 5% increase in costs to the local taxpayers.

But sadly enough, locking people up in jail — in spite of its high cost — does not help solve the central problem of crime in the community. Offenders, once released from their expensive confinement, generally return to the same anti-social behaviors.

According to Mr. Griesmer’s research:

The Colorado Department of Corrections estimates that fully 78% of state inmates have substance abuse needs. Therefore, the prevention of recidivist behavior must include some sort of provision for treatment…

Most offenders, who receive exclusively prison-based treatment, experience rates of recidivism that were similar to offenders who were incarcerated with no treatment at all...

Not only by virtue of the fact that it is a less expensive alternative that result in lower recidivism rates, but also because they include mandatory treatment provisions, drug courts and therapeutic communities are the most effective alternatives…

We ended Part Three, earlier this week, asking how the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners might define the term, “humane,” in reference to the treatment of jail inmates accused of a felony or misdemeanor. The related question, now, is whether humane treatment also has a much lower cost to society as a whole.

Alternatives, anyone?

Read Part Seven…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.