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What would it take to cut Colorado's prison population in half?

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Did you know that Colorado is imprisoning more people than ever before even though the crime rate is at an historic low?

According to the ACLU, the state's prison population exploded by 661 percent between 1980 and 2016. The civil rights organization projects an additional 38-percent increase by 2024 unless changes are made.

The 1980s brought a nationwide crackdown on drug offenses, and this is represented in our prison population. By 2016, one in seven new admissions to prison were there for drug offenses.

In 2013, reforms in state drug enforcement began slowly decreasing admissions for simple drug possession. The legalization of marijuana eliminated many potential misdemeanor possession arrests. Unfortunately, there has been a significant increase in prosecutions for felony drug possession at the same time.

Another big contributor to Colorado's prison population is people whose probation gets revoked. Often, these probation revocations are due to technical issues such as missing an appointment with a probation officer. The ACLU says that about 25 percent of probation sentences end up in a revocation. Many of those revocations involve new crimes, but many others could be avoided with a little support for the offender.

A few common-sense reforms could dramatically reduce our prison population

The ACLU is currently creating Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints to help states fight mass incarceration. If Colorado implemented the reforms in its state blueprint, it could nearly halve the prison population by 2025 with little public safety impact.

The reforms would mean an estimated 9,085 people in prison and a cost savings of over $675 million. That money could be used for schools or community resources -- or for public safety initiatives that would be more effective at promoting public safety than incarceration has proved to be.

The reforms proposed are focused on prevention and harm reduction strategies, which evidence has shown are more effective at reducing crime than jails and prisons. Examples include:

  • Increasing pre-arrest diversion programs, especially in drug cases
  • Encouraging the use of substance abuse treatment to address drug issues instead of incarceration
  • Reconsidering the effect of criminal law legislation such as H.B. 15-1043, for example, which created a new class of felony DUI offenses
  • Decriminalizing nonviolent crimes and reclassifying many nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors
  • Making parole presumptive when people have a multi-year record of safe behavior in prison

Colorado's jails and prisons are already enormously overburdened. If we make no changes, the problem will only get worse. Ultimately, the legislature and governor will have to take up the reform flag if these changes are to be implemented, but the ACLU's blueprint is a good place to start.

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