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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Eliminate private prisons. Profit has no place in the criminal justice system.

Private companies are profiting off the imprisonment of almost four thousand Coloradans. 

Approximately 20% of our state prison population is held in private prisons. These facilities are owned by large, for-profit corporations. 

Allowing profit into the criminal justice system undermines the integrity, effectiveness, and perception of our justice system.

Michael Dougherty

We would never tolerate profit incentives for judges, public defenders or prosecutors; we should not do so for prisons.  

Valid concerns for immigrants have drawn attention to the federal use of private prison facilities. However, states have been using private prisons in their corrections systems for decades.

States, including Colorado, signed contracts that guaranteed these private corporations a minimum number of prisoners, under a standard rate of payment per inmate. In 2018, Colorado taxpayers paid more than $65 million to private prison corporations.

Colorado’s use of private prisons is even more troubling given the state’s terrible recidivism problem. Over 95% of incarcerated individuals return to our communities after serving their sentences, so we all have a vested interest in their successful rehabilitation. 

However, Colorado has one of the worst recidivism rates in the country – currently ranking in the bottom 10 of the states. Roughly 50% of offenders return to state prison within just three years of release, despite the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) budget of $982 million. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

That rate is a failure for incarcerated individuals, future victims, our community, and taxpayers. If Colorado could reach even the nationwide average for recidivism, we would prevent hundreds and hundreds of crimes from ever being committed.  

Private prisons are a significant impediment to addressing our recidivism problem. A 2016 CDOC report showed that private prisons were not meeting their mandated requirements to provide inmates with work programs, and showed lower success rates for inmate academic, mental health, substance abuse and pre-release programs. 

Prison sentences should protect the community, punish criminal conduct and provide for rehabilitation so that offenders can make a safe and successful return to the community. The overarching goal must be for offenders to never return to prison.

Private prisons, however, have a different goal – they seek to maximize profit. These corporations benefit from offenders as repeat customers and have financial incentives to limit programs. 

For example, one of the private prisons in Colorado currently houses 751 sex offenders. However, the facility offers no treatment or classes for sex offenders. These offenders bide their time without treatment while awaiting transfer to another facility and, eventually, a release to our community. 

A recent announcement regarding the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center highlights the risk of partnering with private companies. 

The private company running this center announced that it will close in March, with little notice and prior to the end of their contract in June. Offenders and employees now are left with an uncertain future — and CDOC is left scrambling to figure out what to do.

The Colorado Sun reported that this closure will cause jail backlogs, prison crowding and premature releases to the community – which will endanger the safety of offenders, CDOC staff and community members.  

The Cheyenne Mountain situation highlights the priority of private prison corporations: profit. Because of the inherent conflict of interest between Colorado’s constitutional duties to house and rehabilitate offenders, and the corporate goal of maximizing profit, private prisons should have no part in our criminal justice system.

The custody and rehabilitation of offenders is a government responsibility that should not be outsourced.

Private prisons often exist in rural communities and are a much-needed source of local employment and revenue, even though private prisons — including in Colorado — often prove unprofitable and eventually close.  

Getting out of the private prison business does not have to mean shutting down these facilities and eliminating jobs. But we must get the notion of profit out of the equation and integrate these facilities into the CDOC, while elevating the overall level of service and the rate of successful re-entry to the community.  

There is hope. The Prison Population Management Committee, an interim committee formed by the legislature and of which I am a member, worked through the summer conducting a review of correctional practices. 

A bill produced with the help of the committee has been introduced that would analyze the transition away from private prisons. Gov. Polis has indicated a willingness to do so. It cannot happen soon enough.

Our elected officials and public agencies should be the ones responsible for criminal justice. These duties should not be delegated to private corporations that answer to shareholders, not voters. 

The mission of our corrections system must prioritize public safety, rehabilitation, substance abuse and mental health treatment and innovative solutions to reduce recidivism.

When the mission of some facilities is tied to a corporate bottom line, it is our state’s integrity that ultimately is compromised. There is no place for profit in the justice system. 

Michael Dougherty has been a prosecutor for 22 years and he is the District Attorney for the 20th Judicial District (Boulder County).