Unless you're an employee of the Department of Corrections or live in Cañon City, you may be surprised to know that the number of prisoners in Colorado has increased more than 500 percent since 1980. On top of that, 70 percent of men and 85 percent of women sentenced to prison last year were convicted of nonviolent offenses, most of which were drug related. To put it in fiscal terms, in 1987 the entire state budget for prisons was $80 million; this year the state will spend around $600 million. In terms of growth since 1995, Colorado has the seventh-fastest growing incarceration rate in relation to the 50 states.
If these statistics and figures sound alarming, you'll want to be sure to attend the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition's (CCJRC) symposium titled "Why Are So Many People in Jail?" at the East Library on Tuesday evening.
"We'll be talking about prevalent crimes, trends in the jail population and what the alternatives are, such as substance abuse treatment programs and restorative justice," said Stephen Raher, director of Epimethian Press who, along with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder, make up the CCJRC.
Restorative justice, said Raher, involves putting the victim and the offender together so that both sides can tell their stories. It also requires the offender to take responsibility for the crime and usually involves a mediator or a community group to decide whether restitution or some other reparation will be enforced.
What makes the CCJRC's approach to prison reform so unique in the Colorado Springs region is their emphasis on coalition building with community groups on all sides of the political and religious spectrum.
"Some might see criminal justice reform to be a hopeless undertaking in the Pikes Peak Region," said Raher," but we've been encouraged by the interest we've received from religious communities and fiscal conservatives."
The religious groups, noted Raher, tend to be most concerned with civil rights violations while fiscal conservatives are often alarmed by the huge amount of taxpayer money prisons receive. All told, over 80 organizations and 600 individual citizens are involved with, or directly support, the CCJRC.
Epimethian Press, founded five years ago by Raher, was originally dedicated solely to prison education.
"I got into this whole field by accident. I had some roommates who were involved in prison education. I would get letters from prisoners and it really opened my eyes to how many people were going to prison who could be dealing with their problems in a community setting. Prison is just a damaging experience and it really encourages inmates not to think for themselves."
But when the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center founded the CCJRC in response to a proposed three-year moratorium on prison building in Colorado, Epimethian decided to join their efforts.
"We started with a sole focus on prisoner education," said Raher, who began distributing books to prisoners and coordinating college programs in prison system and publishing a bi-monthly magazine called Prison Policy News. "But I realized the crux is to prevent people from entering prison in the first place because once they enter the front door a lot of the damage has been done. If we relied on community corrections and focused on mental health and treatment then there would be less prisoners and less people would be committing crimes."
Tuesday's symposium will address changes that can be made in criminal justice policy with a final segment devoted to audience questions and developing a plan for what interested citizens want to do for the future.
On hand will be Raher, former Assistant District Attorney Tom Barnes, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, Bill Groom from the Cynergetics Institute and others. The Independent's Kathryn Eastburn will moderate.
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