Colorado's prison population has doubled in the past 10 years, with half of those released winding back up behind bars. It's a grim equation, one rife with postulations about convicts and their keepers in the Department of Corrections. And it's likely to get worse.
Gov. Bill Ritter knows this, and so do his prison employees. But so far, the governor has done little to alter it. His first legislative season revealed a checkered approach to prison transformation, which has advocacy groups wondering where the self-proclaimed reformer truly stands.
"We feel there should be revolutionary change," says Mary Ellen Johnson of the Pendulum Foundation, a juvenile justice center in Denver. "We can't continue building more prisons. If we do, we are going to destroy our higher education and we won't have room for alternative energy or other visions that the governor has. We want [legislators] to come up with alternatives so DOC doesn't keep expanding."
Early in his first term, Ritter voiced his commitment to reducing recidivism. Then he vetoed two bills designed to work toward that end (one to seal criminal records and another to help ex-cons get IDs).
He also, however, signed into law the creation of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, a 26-member board of legislators, public-safety employees and others that will examine the crisis and draft solutions, which could range from reformed sentencing law to alternatives to incarceration.
Change of plans
Prisoner advocacy groups at first applauded the commission. But Department of Corrections officials recently and unexpectedly cited the commission when they declined to participate in an upcoming recidivism workshop scheduled in Colorado Springs. DOC officials indicated they wanted to wait and see what the commission comes up with, prison advocates say they were told.
The conference, sponsored by the UCCS Violence Intervention and Prevention Center, had been planned for three days in mid-September. DOC director Ari Zavaras was invited to speak, but he turned down the request. So did Department of Public Safety director Pete Weir.
Asked to clarify Zavaras' position on the conference, DOC spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti says Zavaras will not participate as a member of the commission, but would be willing to join as a DOC official.
VIP affiliates, meanwhile, say Zavaras declined to join in any capacity. Without DOC's participation, they cut the all-encompassing conference to a one-day workshop on sentencing reform.
The prison advocacy groups involved are trying to remain positive.
"We are the voice of the people and we have to be," says Johnson. "If the government declines to have anything to do with this, that is OK. As the voice of the people, we have to move forward with being heard."
The state commission will be made up largely of government employees, with four legislators, one juvenile justice representative and one victims' rights envoy. There are few spaces for prisoner advocates, not to mention ex-cons or other citizens.
"I would strive for half [government employees] and half [citizens]," says Jody Glittenberg, a VIP board member, when asked what kind of commission makeup she'd like to see.
VIP affiliates are still deciding which prisoner-advocacy groups should apply to be part of the commission, since not all of them can fit.
"We don't want to be stymied," says Johnson. "We have been going around in circles for years and years and years. We have to break out of that. We had hoped that we could be a part of breaking out of that. We will continue doing what we can do and hope that they will appreciate our efforts down the road."
The new commission is reminiscent of an older board that was dissolved 13 years ago, when the General Assembly questioned its effectiveness. The first commission was established during former Gov. Roy Romer's tenure, in response to the 1993 "Summer of Violence" in which 36 teens were killed in homicides.
The commission, which included few community members, aimed to cut back on crime by toughening sentencing laws. The board addressed juvenile justice issues, creating an incarceration/study program for young offenders. But it also lowered the age at which a minor could be tried as an adult.
After the commission disbanded, the situation only worsened in DOC.
"Whoever they are, there will be many of the same problems," says Dottie Wham, a former legislator on the old board, speaking of the new commission. "These problems whirl around you. What are you going to do about kids in gangs? What are you going to do about money? How are you going to get the people behind you to let you do what needs to be done, rather than throw everybody in prison?"
While the commission will muddle through those and other questions, community groups on the ground have started to take action of their own.
The Youth Transformation Center in Colorado Springs coordinates a local restorative justice program to get youth offenders to talk with their victims. A young perpetrator, the injured party, an arbitrator and several witnesses discuss the crime and its consequences, deciding upon appropriate restitution for the victim. The young person can't change the nature of his or her punishment through the discussion, a caveat that allows the victim and perpetrator to speak honestly about what happened.
The adolescents are pushed to view their crime in the context of their society, an approach that YTC representatives say should be extended to adult prisoners in DOC as well.
"We ban [adult prisoners] from the community that should be helping them," says YTC director Jeannette Holtham.
Two weeks ago, Ritter signed a bill to bring restorative justice programs for youth offenders to localities throughout the state.
But for adult convicts, especially for those leaving prison without jobs, IDs or even housing, change is slow in coming. Ritter's piecemeal efforts to reduce recidivism might not pan out. But then again, they may.
"It takes a long time to cook that egg," says Glittenberg. "The state has a lot of work to do. He didn't close the door on dialogue. He sees his role as an arbitrator of different views.
"I keep saying, "Never give up.'" firstname.lastname@example.org
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