The Colorado General Assembly has made criminal justice reform a priority in recent years and is poised to again in the upcoming legislative session. While many of the reforms are commendable, I question others. The General Assembly has rightly passed reforms, particularly around drug offenses. However, I am gravely concerned the conversation around criminal justice reform in Colorado has now become acutely focused on reducing prison populations at all costs in order to save money.
This shouldn’t be solely a budget question; the status of our state’s prison population is much more complex and is fundamentally about what we value. We should value public safety first and foremost. As Colorado’s General Assembly prepares to go into the 2020 legislative session, I implore our elected officials to ensure the safety and well-being of our communities and our children is the No. 1 priority.
As the executive director of the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance (COVA), I speak to crime victims every day. Our organization regularly receives calls from survivors who bravely went through the criminal justice process, often because they didn’t want anyone else to be harmed and they wanted their perpetrator to change his or her ways. More and more often, we are hearing from crime victims who are disappointed and left feeling unsafe by that experience. Some learn that the person who harmed them or their family member will serve only a fraction of their sentence or their offender will serve very little prison time at all and will be placed into community corrections within months.
Once paroled, many offenders fail to succeed, but they receive chance after chance to change their behavior. We see this in fewer parole revocations, even for high-risk and dangerous behavior. Colorado has abysmal recidivism rates and up to 50% of returns to state prison are for people who are already involved with the criminal justice system. These are all huge public safety problems and we need meaningful investment in re-entry programs that will help individuals lead good lives when they are back in our communities. However, the go-to solution shouldn’t be to simply reduce consequences across the board.
The uncomfortable truth is that there are some people who cannot safely be in our communities. Sex offenders, for example, make up approximately 23% of Colorado’s prison population. According to an analysis by the Colorado District Attorney’s Council, over 77% of all offenders imprisoned for the most serious sexual offenses under the Lifetime Supervision Act committed their crimes against Colorado’s children. In my opinion, people who enjoy raping or sexually molesting children are exactly those who should be in prison. Unfortunately, there are special interests who do not agree.
Every year, COVA and other organizations along with many individuals who care about the safety of children and our communities battle proposed legislation designed to let more sex offenders out of prison and to keep future offenders from going to prison for very heinous crimes. We hear about mythical prisoners who are serving sentences for “public urination” or “streaking across football fields.” The truth is, Colorado law does not classify these cases as sex offenses, much less prison-eligible felony offenses. In fact, our criminal justice system today does not require most perpetrators of sexual violence to ever serve a day in prison. Offenders who are serving time in our prisons have committed serious felony sexual offenses (we used to call this rape and molestation) and have been sentenced to prison by a judge.
Research indicates that 77%-81% of sexual assault victims — and 88% of child sexual abuse victims — do not report their assaults to law enforcement. Even when reports are made, they are often delayed by years or decades. Of every 1,000 sexual assaults, only 46 will lead to arrest and five will lead to a felony conviction. It is also worth noting that of the offenders convicted of the most serious sex offenses, over 70% receive initial sentences to probation. When sex offenders end up in prison, it is because they earned it.
Criminal justice reform is needed, but not at the expense of the safety of our communities or the safety of our children whom we have a duty to protect.
Nancy Lewis has been the executive director of the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance (COVA) since April 1994. COVA has a number of programs that are committed to fairness and healing for crime victims, their families and communities through leadership, education, and advocacy.