Colorado's prison population, which six months ago was projected to hit a record high in 2025, now is expected to level over the next six years.
The state Department of Public Safety predicted in December that the population of prisoners would swell by more than 20% between fiscal years 2018 and 2025, from 20,136 at the end of last year to 24,260 by June 2025.
But an updated forecast presented Monday to legislators in Denver shows that the population is more likely to drop for about three years before rising again to reach about 20,900 in June 2025.
The faulty forecast was due to some policy changes over the past six months, as well as trends in criminal filings and parole revocations, said Linda Harrison, senior analyst at the Division of Criminal Justice.
This is good news for taxpayers and lawmakers, who have struggled to provide the resources needed to support an increasing prison population.
But some legislators question the methodology that state researchers use.
"It’s important that we dig down into what is working and what is not working," said Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver. "This specific modeling has been off for years."
The Department of Public Safety releases a projection every six months, and the Colorado Legislative Council issues a forecast each winter.
The projections help legislators decide how much money to allocate to the Department of Corrections, whether new prison facilities are warranted and whether other measures are needed to reduce the inmate population.
Greg Sobetski, a Legislative Council economist, called the discrepancy in the most recent projections "an unusual degree of forecast error."
Criminal filings have been on the rise, but numbers from fiscal year 2019 show that trend is beginning to level, according to the Division of Criminal Justice.
Fewer people are going back to prison for technical parole violations, data show.
Recent legislation is expected to lead to even fewer parole denials and revocations and more discretionary parole releases, Harrison said.
The state Parole Board also has worked with Gov. Jared Polis' office to speed releases to help relieve some of the pressure on prisons. And a new law that reclassifies some drug felonies as misdemeanors also is expected to reduce prison commitments by nearly 300 each year, Harrison reported.
“For the past few years, the population has been growing, and we’ve been trying to takes step to address it. And I think you’re seeing the results of those steps," said Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, who co-sponsored the reclassification law.
As of June 30, the state prison population was at nearly 20,000. About 14,200 were in the DOC's 19 prison facilities, such as the Centennial Correctional Facility in Fremont County, the Legislative Council reported. Altogether, those prisons have about 14,500 beds.
At the end of last month, nearly 3,900 more inmates were being held at three private prisons with state contracts, including the Cheyenne Mountain Re-Entry Center in Colorado Springs.
And about 1,800 other offenders were in corrections custody but not in prison, such as residents of community corrections transition programs or those held at a local jail awaiting a prison bed.
The state forecasts don't address how many people are expected to be in county jails while awaiting trial or serving sentences for lower-level crimes, as those numbers have little bearing on Corrections' day-to-day operations, said DOC Executive Director Dean Williams.
"Those forecasts are very fluid and very dynamic. As soon as they’re issued, they change," Williams said. "It gives us some sense of what the future might hold. But the reality is, we have to be far more fluid about the changes in population on a short-term basis."