Narratives about crime and punishment take center stage as Colorado’s 2023 legislative session intensifies. From catalytic converter thefts to fentanyl distribution, Colorado legislators care about preserving safety in our communities.
However, Senate Bill 23-214, in combination with the already-passed Senate Bill 23-113, would swell the Colorado Department of Corrections budget to more than $1 billion for the first time in Colorado history and would add funding for more than 1,000 additional prison beds. Yet, mass incarceration does not equal public safety. Throwing money at a correctional crisis will only exacerbate Colorado’s reliance on prisons over people.
Instead, we must improve access to community mental health and substance abuse treatment and affordable housing — not bankroll more prison beds. Contact Gov. Polis today and tell him the corrections department does not need a budget of more than $1 billion.
Just rewind the clock 30 years to grasp the miscalculations, hasty decision-making, and media sensationalism that exploded the Colorado prison population in the 1990s and early 2000s. Politicians and the media dubbed 1993 the “Summer of Violence” following the alleged increase in violent crime, while Gov. Roy Romer championed mass incarceration as the solution. Yes, the publicized crimes were tragic, but the media and political dramatization was unmistakable. The Denver Post published twice as many stories about crime in 1993 than in either 1992 or 1994, and those stories were 20 times more likely to make the front-page news that year than the year prior. Yet, in reality, Colorado saw 10 fewer homicides in 1993 than in 1992, and the murder rate had decreased by 12 percent since the late 1980s.
Four months, one “Summer of Violence,” and pages upon pages of news coverage later, Gov. Romer called a special legislative session. Without solid cause and effect but emotions running high, the General Assembly passed 11 bills that dramatically changed the lives of Colorado citizens soon-to-be embroiled in the criminal legal system. These bills disproportionately impacted young individuals of color who experience over-policing and prejudicial prosecution and sentencing.
Romer also expanded the Colorado prison system by $144 million. The number of prison beds — not merely available but now requiring occupation — ballooned to three times the number available in 1986.
Sound familiar? By 2007, during the peak of Colorado’s mass incarceration, one in every 100 residents sat behind bars, lacking access to rehabilitative services. As reliable data and tragic personal narratives emerged, we discovered that mass incarceration devastated people and communities. It was an overly simple and misguided attempt at quelling the increasingly complex problems of crime and public safety.
Colorado has spent the last several years disentangling the political mistakes of the 90s, and we’d be damned to let it happen again.
As a social worker working in the criminal legal system, I know firsthand how valiantly Colorado has fought to institute reform efforts that have transformed lives. University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative provides individuals in prison with artistic outlets and connections with the larger community. The re-entry organization Second Chance Center operates one-of-a-kind housing for individuals experiencing homelessness and justice system involvement.
Colorado lawmakers expanded the availability of record sealing, minimizing discrimination in hiring and housing decisions. Attorney General Phil Weiser allocated $1.1 million to help individuals leaving prison gain access to fair employment, reducing the chances of reoffending. District attorneys in several counties regularly submit data to understand and rectify the widespread racial and ethnic disparities in arrests, prosecution, and sentencing.
Yet, with SB23-214, we risk reversing years of advancement.
As the General Assembly attempts to balance public safety and reform, familiar yet outdated rhetoric inundates local media. It is true that crime has increased in parts of Colorado and nationwide following an unprecedented pandemic, though Colorado and national crime rates remain lower than historic levels. Additionally, Colorado’s population has surged, meaning our state will contend with increasing housing insecurity, excessive rent, homelessness, and illicit drug distribution and use. Though Colorado has improved access to low-cost mental health services, these resources remain in scant supply given the state’s rising demand for treatment.
Tougher penalties, longer sentences, and a swelling DOC budget, all of which contribute to mass incarceration, do not make us safer and do not address the root causes of crime. Public safety relies on the very tenets of a functioning society, including affordable housing, accessible mental health and substance abuse treatment, viable employment, and social inclusion. We must invest in addressing these critical needs here in the community to produce a sustainable reduction in crime.
We have come too far in the struggle for reform to turn back now. Contact Gov. Polis today and urge him to reject SB23-214, which will inflate DOC’s budget to a whopping $1 billion for the first time in Colorado history. I encourage concerned citizens to support reinvestment in community initiatives to increase resources and reduce disparities, which will lead to safer communities.
Hillary Vervalin, of Fort Collins, is a licensed clinical social worker and a Ph.D. student at Colorado State University.
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