Prison Cells

Along largely party-line votes, lawmakers forwarded three bills to the General Assembly that will inch the state toward abolishing private prisons and expanding the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system.

Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, who called privately owned prisons “waning,” presented legislation to study the eventual phase-out of all such institutions by 2025.

“We have to be very intentional about what we want to see happen with these facilities,” she warned the Prison Population Management Interim Study Committee. “If they choose to move out of Colorado without our action, we will not have a plan in place to house these offenders and ensure successful transition and anti-recidivism.”

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg strongly opposed Herod’s framing of “when” to abolish private prisons, not “if.”

“I’m not sure how we ended up on a path to make government determine what private industry can and cannot be here in Colorado if it is a legal, private industry,” he said.

Herod responded that private prison contracts become costly once all of the needed services for inmates are factored in.

“If we actually brought the contracts up to where they need to be, where people are getting access to the mental health treatment they need, the sex offender management treatment that has been ordered, the workforce readiness programs — when you start layering those requirements in, you see contracts go up. You see the price of beds go up. You see the cost to the state increase.” 

Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, offered an amendment to cut the Department of Corrections out of the approval process for bringing inmates from out of state into Colorado’s private prisons.

Rep. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells, supported the amendment, saying an influx of prisoners would make communities whole whose private prisons are below capacity or shut down.

Christie Donner of the Colorado Criminal Justice Coalition asked Sonnenberg who would provide oversight of those out-of-state inmate transfers if DOC were out of the picture.

“I’d have to do a little more research,” he replied. 

Herod acknowledged that in her discussions with rural county commissioners, they were concerned about the loss of tax revenue and jobs should private prisons go away. An analysis of the impact on those communities is part of the study.

Sonnenberg’s amendment failed 2-4.

Another component of the bill is the refurbishment of CSP II, a state facility in Centennial that was formerly closed to inmates. The bill specifies that for every inmate moved to CSP II, that there be a corresponding reduction in the state’s private prison.

Herod’s bill advanced 4-2, with Sonnenberg and Pelton voting against.

Another controversial proposal was whether adults ages 18-25 could be treated as juveniles in some circumstances. 

“The prefrontal cortex, the decision-making center, is not fully developed until the age of 25,” said Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, who authored the bill. “We’re looking to create a mechanism for people between the ages of 18-25 to be able to transfer their criminal case to juvenile court based on level of functioning.”

The bill creates a process for adults 25 and under to petition for certain felony cases to move to the juvenile justice system, as well as a guide for sentencing.

Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty was flatly opposed to the measure, saying every defense attorney would request the process for their client.

“It would have an incredible impact on any sex offense committed by someone between 18-25 years old,” he said.

“In my mind, I have this image of a guy who drives his car because he’s old enough to be given that responsibility. He goes into a bar. He shows his driver’s license to get a drink because he’s old enough to drink in our state, Then he takes a woman from the bar back to his home and he rapes her. And for that act he’s able to say, ‘you know what? I’m not fully developed. I should be treated as a juvenile and I should not be eligible with the consequences associated with a rape.’”

Dougherty followed up with a hypothetical police officer under age 25 — who has “tremendous responsibility and power” — who might claim juvenile status if he himself committed a crime.

“There are still consequences in the juvenile justice system,” responded Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver.

The estimated four-year cost of the bill is over $300 million, in large part because of the expansion of the juvenile justice system. At the local level, district attorney and sheriff's offices would also incur increased staffing and other expenses. An analysis of the bill assumed that 55% of eligible cases — 4,675 — would transfer to juvenile courts, of which just under half would involve a first-time offender receiving probation.

The vote to advance the bill was 4-2, with Sonnenberg and Pelton again voting no.

The committee’s final bill came from Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, who proposed a study of the state’s criminal justice system.

The goal for Gonzales is to “better understand from the point of view of the individual how people move through different phases of the criminal justice system: which agencies make decisions that then impact that individual, what data is collected when by whom, and how that data is then shared or not shared by different aspects of the criminal justice agency.”

The proposal advanced on a vote of 5-1, with Sonnenberg voting no.

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