Columns » Voice of Reason

Prison reform starts now, here

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There’s a powerful change coming — one that will change lives, if it hasn’t already. And it’s not coming from the federal level, but from right here in Colorado.

We’re talking about prison reform. Meaningful, evidence-based, functional prison reform. And you can see it playing out in real time in Southeast Colorado Springs. 

The innovative Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention Initiative — now known as the Transforming Safety project — aims to stem the state’s $1 billion-per-year prison pipeline by interrupting crime at the grassroots level. (The bill that created the program was sponsored by our own Reps. Pete Lee and Bob Gardner, along with Sen. Daniel Kagan, in 2017.) Still in its pilot phase, the effort redirects $4 million each year from the state’s parole budget and earmarks those dollars for low-cost, small-business loans and for grants to boots-on-the-ground agencies working to stop crime before it starts. 

During this pilot period, which will end in 2023, the funds must be used for programs in Southeast Colorado Springs or in North Aurora. Here, 21 schools, nonprofits and government agencies have taken advantage of this rather extraordinary program and are currently working on projects that range from teaching kids how to deal with dangerous or violent circumstances to training teachers how to respond to disclosures of sexual violence or abuse. There are also mentorship programs and gang interventions and family education. 

And then there’s the Fresh Start Investment Program. This entrepreneurial training program, conducted by the Solid Rock Community Development Corp., started as a way to teach those whose lives have been impacted by the prison system to become business owners or better employees.

At least that was the plan. Until one student in the inaugural class said it would have been great training to have before he was released. And that was all it took: Earlier this month, about 20 inmates in two different Front Range prisons graduated from Fresh Start. When they are released and back home, they will have the skills and business plans in place to start their own businesses and give back to the community. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that those same students are encouraged to hire former offenders as their businesses grow. Bravo! 

Study after study has shown that education or some form of career training dramatically reduces the rate of recidivism. A study by the RAND Corporation found that, “inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than inmates who did not.” Put another way, a lack of education is one of the greatest risk factors in whether an ex-offender will be back behind bars.

Here’s the thing: For decades the national scales of justice have strongly tipped toward retributive justice, rather than rehabilitative. (See “Life after prison"). Part of that may be financial: There’s no denying that incarceration is a big business in the U.S.

In 2016, the most recent year for which numbers are available, some 10.6 million people were admitted to city and county jails alone, U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show. And the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative found the U.S. spends $182 billion each year on mass incarceration.

Look, we’re not denying that someone who has been convicted should face a penalty. But don’t throw up roadblocks to their lifelong betterment, and don’t penalize hard-working, law-abiding taxpayers by saddling them with exorbitant prison costs.

Getting people out of the prison system and into business benefits everyone. Not only does reducing prison populations save taxpayers money, but growing businesses in the more socioeconomically stagnant part of a community helps the economy. That means more opportunities for people who had been trapped in a money-sucking, punishment-only system. 

The time is now: Colorado has a governor who supports criminal justice reform and an activist attorney general who has made prison reform a priority. Two years ago, Transforming Safety passed the state Legislature, and now it’s changing the system, by changing lives at the most basic level. We are confident the state will prove to be a national model for how to change our correction systems for the betterment of all.

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