Efforts are underway to eliminate private prisons in Colorado. This is not terribly surprising, given what appears to be the prevailing latitudinarian sentiment in the Capitol toward crime, suggestive of the idea that there ought not to be prisons at all.
The bill currently scurrying its way through the legislative process concerns “Measures to Manage the State Prison Population,” meaning, of course, measures to reduce prison populations and close privately-operated prisons in the state. (Curiously, it makes no mention of concomitant measures to reduce the crimes which generate those prison populations.) It makes no secret that its ultimate goal is the elimination of private prisons, as the key element of the bill is to direct the Department of Corrections to “study how to end the use of private prisons by 2025.”
It is easy to paint this simply as a continuation of the ongoing reform movement bulldozing its way through the criminal justice system, leaving serious doubts about public safety in the rubble. But the particular issue of private prison dismantlement transcends the usual criminal justice bounds and surfaces; it is a continuation of the ongoing war on rural Colorado.
Two of the principal facilities in the bill’s crosshairs are located in the heart of the state’s rural southeast corner, one in Bent County and the other in Crowley County. The facilities represent pretty much the largest economic drivers in not only those two counties but surrounding ones. They are among the largest employers, pay higher-than-average wages, and contribute significantly to the local property tax base. It is not hyperbole, but chilling reality, to say that the closure of those institutions would be devastating to the local community.
Even that is really understating the effect. The numbers were recently compiled to quantify the egregious economic impact, and they are sobering: should the prisons shut down, Crowley County stands to endure a 54 percent reduction in property tax, Bent County a 25 percent reduction.
The figures are startling enough on their own, but fairly abstract. They become rather more vivid when translated into what equal reductions would look like in dollar terms for some of the more populous Front Range counties. Recognizing the existential threat to their communities for what it is, the good people in Crowley and Bent counties did precisely that.
Are you sitting down? In 2018 Pueblo County collected $52,913,341 in property tax. If subjected to the 25 percent reduction that Bent County faces with the prison closure, that translates to a loss of $13,228,335 in one year. If battered with Crowley’s projected 54 percent hit, Pueblo county would lose more than $25.5 million dollars in that same year.
Let’s continue in that model: Arapahoe County under Bent’s 25 percent scenario would lose more than $39.2 million; under Crowley’s 54 percent scenario, $84.7 million. Boulder County at a 25 percent reduction would lose $44.3 million, and in excess of $95 million at 54 percent. Jefferson County would have to do without nearly $50 million a year at a 25 percent decrease, and a whopping $107.3 million at 54 percent.
As they say, a million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money. This bill is certainly gut-punchingly real for southeast Colorado.
It’s useful to reflect on why private prisons began to be utilized in the state in the first place. On a per-diem basis, private prisons are 10-20 percent less expensive than state-run facilities, and without the enormous capital costs. The legislature seems intent on closing private prisons, but is far less enthusiastic about paying to build new ones. In any case, after paying for all their other ideas, there’s no money left to do so if they wanted to. Which, as former Gov. Bill Owens points out, puts us in a similar lamentable spot as in the 1980s and early '90s, when a lack of prison space resulted in the release of dangerous criminals onto the streets, with predictable results.
The equally predictable outcome of this bill will be a similar increase in violent crime, with a concurrent enormous economic cost to rural Colorado. It’s difficult to see the upside, but it may be that my imagination is simply insufficiently acrobatic; perhaps the alternative is for the citizenry of Bent and Crowley counties to resort to lives of crime. After all, there won’t be sufficient prison space to arrest them.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.