Public safety is a priority for every Coloradan. We can be tough on crime while also smart about spending taxpayer money. And we should expect results.
* Review existing incarceration policies and better coordinate with human services.
* Put evidence-based actions into place and review how federal resources are allocated statewide to support effective law enforcement.
* Continue to build on and improve transparency and communication, connecting all local jurisdictions across the State.
"As a brewpub owner in what was once a tough neighborhood and much later as mayor of Denver, I know how important it is for people to feel safe in their communities. There is no bigger priority in government than maintaining public safety." -- John Hickenlooper
The State of Colorado continues to face budget shortfalls. Continuing to approach public safety with a business-as-usual mindset is a poor use of increasingly limited taxpayer dollars. To improve public safety, we must find and implement proven alternatives that are both cost-effective and measurable.
For starters, violent offenders and others who pose an ongoing danger to the health and property of Coloradans should be in prison. This is the only alternative worth considering for this population. However, that is only one part (and, thankfully, a small part) of a larger criminal justice strategy. Colorado taxpayers invest millions of dollars in public safety. We should measure our results and aim to reach a higher standard of success.
Our highest priorities should be protecting our most vulnerable citizens. We should focus our resources to reduce the number of children who suffer from physical and sexual abuse, to reduce the number of women experiencing sexual assault and domestic violence, and to reduce the number of seniors who live in fear or are victims of fraud and other crimes. The end result of our endeavors should be a safer and healthier environment for all law-abiding citizens.
We should start with efforts to ensure the health, education, and safety of our young people. The well-being of our youth directly contributes to their involvement in the criminal justice system, both as offenders and victims. Once they have started down a life of criminal involvement or victimization, young people have a significantly increased chance of repeat involvement. Studies indicate that children from all social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds entering the juvenile justice system are more likely to reenter the criminal justice system as adults. This is not simply a matter for law enforcement. It is a matter for our communities. We must work together to increase high school graduation rates, which in turn increase opportunities for employment and housing.
Studies show that the lifetime cost to the nation for each youth who drops out of school and later moves into a life of crime and drugs ranges from $1.7 to $2.3 million. The relationship between crime and education is clearest when looking at dropout status and incarceration: although they constitute less than 20% of the overall population, dropouts make up over 50% of the state prison inmate population. These costs are too high for Colorado.
For adults incarcerated in the Colorado criminal justice system, an astonishing 53% will return for a repeat visit within three years, but we should expect more than a revolving-door system funded by taxpayers. We generally treat substance abusers, the mentally ill, and petty offenders the same way we treat hardened and violent criminals. We put them in our prisons and jails at a significant cost to Colorado taxpayers. The dollars saved by effectively reducing recidivism can be spent to advance efforts aimed at prevention, treatment, and community corrections. Other states have made significant headway on this problem - reducing recidivism rates by over 50% - and the opportunity exists for us to build on what has already been done and achieve the same results.
A successful safety strategy for Colorado starts with a robust incarceration capacity for our most serious and violent offenders and continues with long-term prevention efforts aimed at our youth and with innovative alternatives aimed at our adult population re-entering society. We must be willing to do more than merely consider alternatives and talk about the possibilities, and instead harness our entrepreneurial spirit to implement new ideas, measure their success, and expand those strategies that are proven successful.
Strategies and Solutions
Colorado is positioned to address public safety in unique and innovative ways. We should better align efforts that effectively address public safety concerns across the State. Our focus should be on reducing crime and better preparing our citizens for disasters and emergencies. These can be accomplished in the following ways:
Prison for Those Who Deserve It: Prison is expensive to society and we should only incarcerate those for whom alternatives are unlikely to work, or those who pose a threat to property and citizens. Avoiding the need for prison is the key to cost containment. Maintaining an understanding of who to incarcerate balances public safety with cost stewardship. Most criminal justice experts agree that there are three types of defendants deserve significant prison time:
1. Those who owe restitution to the victim(s) in the form of incarceration.
2. Those who are a threat to society of committing more crimes if they are not locked up.
3. Those who are being sentenced to prison to deter others who may feel immune from the law and who might commit the same type of crimes, such as white-collar criminals involved in securities fraud and embezzlement of retirement funds.
For many other defendants we should explore other options to focus on less expensive options such as drug treatment, alternative restitution, and rehabilitation.
Preventing Juvenile Crime: Our approach starts with efforts that ensure the health, education, and safety of our young people. The well being of our youth directly contributes to their involvement in the criminal justice system, both as offenders and victims. Evidence suggests that incarcerating youth undermines their social maturation and educational progress and likely contributes to recidivism. The key to ending this cycle is prevention.
1. Decrease the percentage of our youth involved in criminal activity. Target our prevention resources and ensure the best return - in the form of reduced criminal activity and the economic costs of that criminal activity - for our tax dollar.
2. Reduce the percentage of youth falling victim to crime. A 2008 national study revealed that youth aged 12-15 had the highest rates of victimization among all age groups surveyed.
3. Collaborate with education and human service programs to focus on job development and affordable housing. Recent studies show that offenders obtaining gainful employment upon release are more than three times more likely to successfully re-enter society from prison, so our focus should be on creating jobs and a vibrant economy as a way to increase public safety.
Sentencing Strategies: Over 25 years ago, we passed a law in Colorado doubling sentences for all crimes, leading to predictable increases in our jail and prison populations. The hope was that longer sentences would keep the public safe, but longer minimum prison sentences do not reduce crime. Longer sentences do keep offenders locked up and out of society, but if many people return to prison within three years of their release, we must examine our flawed, one-size-fits-all approach. We need to evaluate what services and supports can lead to better outcomes and reduce recidivism and excess costs to taxpayers.
Efficiency and Innovation: We can continue to build on successful models to reduce crime, such as Denver's Crime Prevention and Control System, which has helped realize a reduction in crime of over 18% from 2003-2008. There are two types of programs: those that emphasize system efficiency and those that address the root causes of the problems that lead to criminal activity. Increasing system efficiency translates into more dollars for police, fire, sheriff, and other front-line emergency personnel. Solving root problems means there will be less to respond to, increasing the effectiveness of our front line personnel as they focus resources on a more manageable set of problems and crises. Solving both types of problems creates the momentum for increasing public safety and ultimately creating a stronger Colorado.