Group pushes for halt to new prisons 

Standing next to a stark, black-and-white chart showing the number of prisoners behind bars in Colorado, activist Christie Donner rattles off statistics that she says support her call for a moratorium on new prison construction in the state.

'Prison construction now takes up one-third of the state's capital construction budget,' Donner told a group of about three dozen residents gathered at downtown's St. Mary's Cathedral earlier this week. 'And it's been increasing.'

Donner spoke as part of a statewide, grass-roots effort to raise support for Senate Bill 00-104. Introduced in the state Senate last week, the bill would forbid new prison construction in the state until 2003.

Inmate population quintupled

A few of the facts cited during Donner's two-hour talk:

The state prison system now gobbles up one-sixth of the state budget -- more than a half-billion dollars in operating, maintenance and construction costs next year alone.

Since 1980, when just more than 3,000 inmates resided in state prisons, the inmate population in Colorado has quintupled to roughly 15,000.

State corrections officials now project the number of imprisoned convicts to reach roughly 20,000 by the year 2005.

The prison moratorium bill, Donner argued, would give lawmakers a chance to stop and look at the real costs of increased incarceration.

Among other things, the proposed bill would create a 17-member task force that would study the causes behind the state's massive prison boom and suggest possible countermeasures.

Made up of experts appointed by various sectors in the criminal justice system, the task force would study minority representation in prison, the availability of drug treatment programs behind bars and the role of parole policies.

Sponsored by three Denver-area Democrats (Sen. Dorothy Rupert, Rep. Penfield Tate and Rep. Ben Clarke), the bill faces an uphill battle in a state where conservative politicians have used "tough-on-crime" slogans in their campaigns for re-election.

Last year, the bill failed to even get assigned a hearing date before the conservative Senate Judiciary Committee, a necessary step before the bill can be debated by the full Senate.

But this year, activists say, things are different. Though Monday night's audience was small, advocates say they've garnered support from an increasing number of ministries and community groups.

With state spending limited to roughly 6 percent under TABOR, activists say more people are becoming concerned by the 15 to 18 percent annual increases in the state prison budget.

The goal, they say, is to show the state's legislators that Coloradans don't necessarily want a narrow, "hard-on-crime" approach if it's too costly. "What people want is a just a sane approach," Donner said.

Declining crime

State corrections boss John Suthers was out of town and could not be reached for comment on the proposed bill. But in past interviews with the Independent, Suthers has questioned the moratorium idea, saying it could tie the department's hands at a time when increased prison capacity is desperately needed.

Suthers also has questioned critics' claims that the prison boom is fueled by the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders.

Most state-prison inmates have several convictions on their records -- often for violent crimes -- before judges send them into the state system, he said.

Suthers and others in law enforcement have also claimed that the high cost of incarceration is worthwhile, since the nationwide prison boom has corresponded with a declining crime rate.

Moratorium advocates question that assertion, however, pointing out that while overall crime stats may be down, violent crimes in many categories have, in fact, increased.

Meanwhile, other moratorium supporters point out that crime-rate gains could be short-lived, because inmates will someday be put back on the street.

"The prison system is keeping people longer, and it's not rehabilitating them," said Carolyn Caplan, organizer of the Southern Chapter of Colorado-CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants). "When these [inmates] get out, they get $100, a bus ticket, and they end up living next to you."


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