Cut Prison Spending First, Not Schools

02/22/2011 03:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael J. McCarthy Freelance writer, member of Colorado Press Association & Denver Press Club

Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed $570 million in budgets cuts, hacking off $332 million from K-12 education and trimming only a paltry $10 million from prisons.

Before Colorado lawmakers close another school, we need to take a closer look at the sensible cuts that could come from prison and sentencing reform. Dozens of states are saving tens of millions without jeopardizing public safety -- and we should too.

When one considers that the cost of housing a single state prisoner is on average $30,000 a year, the savings add up quickly by releasing non-violent offenders who are eligible. Every 40 prisoners equates to $1.2 million in savings. However, prison reformers are quick to point out that a prison must be closed to realize the savings. Colorado can do a lot better than just closing Ft. Lyons.

There is $75 - $100 million on the table if our lawmakers stop being so conservative in their approach to prison and sentencing reform. Unwarranted fear is costing our children dearly.

No one wants a free ride for criminals, but let's bring Colorado back in line with other civilized nations and states when it comes to doling out punishment. In a limited state budget excessive incarceration steals from other vital areas of state government.

Here are some examples of what other states are doing:

Programs in New York and Arizona aimed at cutting the prison sentences of certain immigrant inmates so they can be deported faster have federal officials urging other states to adopt similar policies.

Officials in the two states say they have saved millions of dollars by turning over for early deportation some non-violent immigrant criminals who have served at least half of their sentences. Colorado could do the same.

Lawmakers could create a bill that mandates the turning over of non-violent illegal immigrant prisoners past their parole eligibility dates to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

ICE officials say the federal government also saves money when immigrant inmates get sent home early, and they hope to expand the programs in the next few months.

This program does not apply to rapists, murderers, or serious criminals.

It costs an average of $95 a day for the federal government to detain and house illegal immigrants before deportation. The accelerated deportation policy reduces the amount of time aliens are in our custody. It reduces the amount of time lawyers have to spend prosecuting cases in immigration court.

Under the accelerated deportation programs, only those inmates who are eligible for deportation and won't fight their removal from the USA can participate. If the deportee returns to the USA and is caught, the immigrant will serve the remainder of the original sentence plus prison time for any new criminal offenses.

The illegal immigrant may also face a separate felony conviction for returning after being deported and up to 20 years in prison.

It would be up to each state to iron out specific eligibility requirements, such as how much of the sentences must be served before inmates are eligible.

These people are going to be deported when they get done anyhow: Why not speed the process and get them out of here?

Since December 2005, Arizona turned 1,300 inmates over to ICE for deportation under the policy, says Nolberto Machiche, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections. He says the state has saved more than $17 million as a result because it no longer has to house the criminals.

New York's program began in 1995, says Erik Kriss, spokesman for New York State Department of Correctional Services. Through December, nearly 2,000 inmates had been deported under the program for a savings of $141 million.

The inmates were turned over to ICE for deportation an average of 27.4 months before completing their minimum sentences, he says.

Nevada has increased the amount of earned-time non-violent offenders can receive in prison up to sixty percent, and saved over $10 million dollars in the process. Colorado currently awards their compliant inmates 10 days for every 30 days served or 33 percent. This should be changed to 20 days.

California, Oregon, Indiana, Texas, Florida, etc... all have programs that mandate early discharge from parole of compliant non-violent prisoners who serve one year clean of parole. This would save Colorado tens of millions dollars; since technical parole violations are the number one reason offenders return to prison.

Finally, the state audit department needs to take a serious look at CDOC administrators' wages. The top 55 administrators all earn in excess of $100,000 a year -- 55 employees costing the state $6.2 million. Steven Green, warden of Delta, a 500-man minimum security prison, is earning $124,000 a year. A CDOC Private Prison Monitoring Unit Liaison is earning $110,000 a year. There are 55 people like this. It is outrageous.

Gov. Hickenlooper might have some tough choices to make, but he needs to be looking in the right direction. The answer is: Cut prison spending first, not schools.

Michael J. McCarthy lives in Denver. He is a member of the Colorado Press Association and the Denver Press Club. Contact at: