Colorado has among the worst recidivism rates in the country, with over 50% of people released from prison ending up back behind bars within three years.
On Friday, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill supporters say would help change that.
If signed into law, House Bill 1037 would reduce prison sentences for non-violent offenders who complete higher education while incarcerated. It would deduct six months for earning a certificate, one year for an associate or bachelor’s degree, 18 months for a master's degree and two years for a doctorate degree.
“Too often, formerly incarcerated individuals rejoin the workforce with limited education on top of already being at a significant disadvantage relative to their peers due to their criminal history," said bill sponsor Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver. “This bill will help reduce recidivism rates and better prepare Coloradans to find good-paying careers once they’ve left prison."
Prisoners who pursue higher education while incarcerated have been found to be less likely to return to crime after they’re released. Recidivism rates drop to 13.7% for prisoners who earned associates degrees, 5.6% for those who earned bachelor’s degrees and 0% for those who earned master’s degrees, according to a 2006 national analysis by Emory University.
Over 48% of U.S. adults age 25 and older have a postsecondary education, but less than 13% of inmates have attained the same level of education, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Senate passed the bill in a 28-6 vote on Friday, following the House's 61-1 approval last month. Though the bill had bipartisan sponsorship and support, only Republicans opposed it.
Sen. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, said he doesn't oppose incentivizing higher education in prisons, but is concerned that offenders in Colorado already don't serve enough of their original sentences.
"Inmates should certainly pursue every opportunity to better themselves. The bigger issue I have is with the need for sentencing reform in our state," Van Winkle said. "Colorado inmates serve on average less than half of their sentences."
In the Colorado Department of Corrections, the average sentence for a class 2 felony is 377 months, while the average time served is 164.5 months, according to a 2021 report from the department. The average time served was 50% or less of the average sentence for class 3, 4, 5 and 6 felonies, as well as level 1, 2, 3 and 4 drug felonies.
Multiple Republicans who voted in favor of the bill said they were initially opposed, but changed their minds after seeing the data on how education reduces recidivism and hearing testimony from former prisoners.
In a public hearing on the bill, Bikram Mishra said he was incarcerated in Colorado for 12 years, during which time he participated in numerous college courses and earned certificates. Now, Mishra said he works with outgoing prisoners to help them prepare to reenter society.
Mishra said having access to education was “rehabilitative” for him, providing him with the hope and motivation needed to turn his life around.
“If I were to not have that, I definitely would have joined the ranks of the revolving door of prisoners,” Mishra said. “I understand there might be many in our community that feel that that’s what we get for breaking the law. But we are still in society, and we really want to be good members of society.”
Under the bill, prisoners released prior to completing their degree could also choose to finish to earn time off of their parole.
The bill will now be sent back to the House to approve changes made by the Senate.
The Senate amended the bill to give all money saved by shortening sentences of qualifying inmates to the Department of Higher Education to continue facilitating higher education programs in prisons. Originally, the money would have been split with the Department of Corrections, but the Department of Corrections wanted the money to only go towards the education programs, said Rep. Stephanie Luck, R-Penrose, who voted against the bill in the House for that reason.
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