The horrific murder of Colorado’s corrections chief, Tom Clements, has raised questions about recent criminal justice reform efforts, and specifically 2011’s Senate Bill 176. However, the great, untold legislative success story of the last five years is the steady, measured and bipartisan progression of criminal justice reforms aimed at having effective and cost-efficient public safety policies.
Let’s not allow a tragedy to undo years of careful work toward sound policy reforms.
For decades, the Colorado Department of Corrections housed a far greater percentage of inmates in “administrative segregation,” or solitary confinement, than the national average. A large and growing percentage of inmates in administrative segregation have a serious mental illness, which raised the question of whether these inmates needed mental health treatment or medication in response to disruptive behavior, not long-term solitary confinement.
Finally, a DOC report indicated that 47 percent of inmates in administrative segregation were released straight to the community onto parole without any “step-down” to help them adjust to society after release. Legislators introduced SB 176 in 2011 to address these issues.
Clements came onto the job about the same time the bill was introduced. He helped create the bill that ultimately became law. As amended, the bill required the DOC to evaluate its use of administrative segregation and submit a report to the legislature the following year. It also allowed inmates in administrative segregation to be eligible for earned time.
Effective prison management and changing inmate behavior requires both consequences for rules violations and incentives for positive behavior and progress. There were no mandates in SB 176, and the DOC has the sole power to determine whether an individual inmate will be awarded earned time or not.
As a respected corrections professional with over 30 years of experience, Clements was well aware of the complexity of running both safe prisons and preparing people for release. He supported SB 176, and it received significant bipartisan support in the legislature.
Colorado adopted a get-tough sentencing approach in the 1980s. The prison population and budget exploded as a result. But simply incarcerating more people is not the only, or always most effective use of public funds to prevent crime, promote public safety, and re-integrate offenders.
Achieving these goals requires much more complicated and sophisticated strategies both within the criminal justice system and beyond. The recent legislative efforts to reform criminal justice practices and sentencing laws have been based on data and research on how best to promote public safety and what has proven to work to prevent crime and reduce recidivism.
Clearly, there are people for whom a lengthy prison sentence is appropriate and deserved. There is also a clear recognition that some failed policies that have been major drivers of the growth in the prison population, like the war on drugs, need to be substantially redesigned.
We also need to remember that almost every person in prison will eventually be released back into society.
The desire for effective criminal justice policy has driven bipartisan support for reforms both in Colorado and across the country, including the conservative Right on Crime project. To be sure, budget considerations have brought the need for criminal justice reform to the forefront and provided motivation to look at an issue many felt was too controversial to touch.
But in the eight years our organizations have been working on criminal justice issues, we have never seen saving money for its own sake as the driving force behind reform. Cost savings to the taxpayers is rather a beneficial byproduct of sound policy changes.
The murder of Tom Clements is a great tragedy. But just as we shouldn’t let tragedies panic us to rush through bad laws and policies, neither should we allow this great tragedy to derail the ongoing efforts towards a more effective and just system.
Christie Donner is executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. Mike Krause is director of the Justice Policy Initiative at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Denver. A version of this op-ed originally appeared in the Denver Post.
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