Prison Cells

Last week, Colorado Senate Republicans — and a few Democrats — raised questions about a funding request from the Colorado Department of Corrections to pay for additional staff and hundreds of beds, arguing the agency sits on $20 million in vacancy savings and has 1,600 open positions. 

This week, House legislators took on the same request, expressing bipartisan opposition that signals a fight is brewing once the bill comes up for a debate in the full chamber on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 113 seeks a mid-year budget boost of $20.3 million, with money for 393 more beds and 16 new positions as the the biggest driver at $6.2 million. The department wants to pay for 12 correctional officers, a teacher and three case managers and that's just for the rest of the current fiscal year that ends on June 30.

The House Appropriations Committee approved SB 113 on a 10-1 vote, with the only "no" coming from Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, a longtime opponent of prison expansion. 

In an analysis tied to the request, Joint Budget Committee staffer Justin Brakke said the department could not explain how it came up with the caseload numbers, how they relate to existing capacity or how the agency would address custody classifications. He also noted that, traditionally, the governor's budget request for the upcoming fiscal year previews such changes, which didn't happen with the submission from the Polis administration on Nov. 1.

Instead, he noted, the department's request showed up at the JBC five business days before committee members had to make decisions on supplemental budget items. 

Brakke recommended the department wait on the request until the JBC makes decisions on the 2023-24 budget, which is expected to take place in the next few weeks.

The pressure to reject the funding is not only coming from lawmakers. Outside the Capitol, several groups are pushing to strip funding for the additional beds from the supplemental request.

The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, one of the groups, said with the additional funding, the department's budget will exceed $1 billion for the first time. 

"It's a train wreck," said Christine Donner, CCJRC's executive director, who also accused lawmakers of not asking the hard questions.

She argued that, when prison population goes up, the department asks for more money, but it cannot provide adequate staffing for the existing population, never mind the staffing requirements for the increase in the number of inmates budgeted for in the supplemental request.

The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition ideologically opposes measures it argues would increase the prison population, including proposals that toughen penalties and keep or extend people's jail time.

And the group's have quickly begun to mobilize. Bring Our Neighbors Home, a coalition opposed to jailing more people and police arrests, launched a campaign to ask lawmakers to take out the funding for the additional prison beds. In a tweet Monday, the coalition claimed lawmakers are under pressure to open more prison beds, rather than funding solutions to reduce the prison population. 

JBC member Rep. Shannon Bird, D-Westminster, defended the supplemental budget request in a caucus meeting Tuesday, saying the 393 beds have already been filled due to an increase in the prison population. The department has had to take beds that were mothballed and bring them into active service to meet capacity needs, she said.

Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, expressed frustrations at the funding request, as did other members of the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. He said he doesn't have an issue with increases tied to utility costs or staffing to keep people safe, but he has problems with the bed count.

He added that some lawmakers were surprised by the manner in which the department handled the budget request.

"It's not the Department of Corrections that sends people to the Department of Corrections," Weissman said. It's the legislature, he said, that determines what conduct is criminal or what results in mandatory sentencing, or the role of probation. The transitions occurring both in the legislature — it its new leadership teams and members — and at DOC, which just hired a new executive director, had made communications a little difficult, he said. 

Other lawmakers, such as Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver, wanted to know if the department is looking at how to decrease the prison population, through compassionate release, for example, for inmates with significant mental health needs.

Bird replied that the department controls releases only in two situations — through intensive supervision parole and special needs parole. But these two release situations are not enough to offset the current and anticipated future increases in the prison population, she said. 

The legislature should throw more money to incarcerate more people, Gonzales-Gutierrez responded, even as she acknowledged that it's the legislature's policies that determine who end up in prison.

Rep. Javier Mabrey, D-Denver, also asked about why the vacancy savings aren't being used to cover these additional costs.

The vacancies are causing a "vicious spiral," said JBC member Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver.

The department has been working to recruit for vacancies and keep the employees it has, and the savings are being directed to hiring incentives — $20 million so far — which Sirota said is backed by the governor's office and Colorado WINS.

As a result, the department considers the $20 million in vacancy savings already obligated, Sirota said.

Bird added that some of those dollars are also being spent on overtime, estimated for 2022-23 at one million hours at a cost of $50 million. 

Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel receives prison population estimates every January at the SMART Act hearings and those numbers don't sync up with what lawmakers are seeing in the request.

The information they received, she said, was that the department was funded for 17,089 beds, which also included people in community corrections.

The projections from legislative council staff was almost 1,200 fewer, and that's creating confusion about just what the legislature is funding, she said. 

Bird said what the department is asking not based on a forecast, adding that's a question that needs to be addressed during the budget crafting for Fiscal Year 2023-24.

"We're not asking the General Assembly to approve beyond what's already been opened," Bird said.  

CCJRC's Donner said she is frustrated by the inconsistency in the numbers. Prison populations declined by about 2,000 during the onslaught of the COVID 19 pandemic, partly also the result of compassionate release. But the department's budget remained largely the same, even with fewer inmates, and now with the supplemental request, that will grow to over $1 billion. 

The staffing shortage is real, Donner admitted.

"Basic prison operations are not functioning right now," she said. "There's nothing in that supplemental that's going make it better. And in fact, my concern is it's gonna make it worse."

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