By Francisco Miraval
DENVER – The recently formed Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice has joined with local Latino leaders to launch a plan aimed at reducing the disproportionate number of Hispanics in the state’s prisons.
Two CCJJ members – state legislator Claire Levy and Regina Huerter, director of Denver’s Crime Prevention and Control Commission – met Thursday with a group of Hispanic businesspeople, journalists and religious leaders to explain how the legal system in Colorado works and how it affects Latino inmates.
Colorado’s 47 jails and prisons house just over 23,000 inmates, 44 percent of whom are non-Hispanic whites, 32 percent Latinos and 20 percent African Americans, compared with 71 percent non-Latino whites, 20 percent Hispanics and 4.3 percent African Americans in the state’s overall population.
Hispanics also make up 42 percent of the almost 16,500 minors under judicial supervision in Colorado. Of them, 11,000 are in juvenile detention and 6,000 on juvenile probation, according to state Department of Public Safety figures.
The CCJJ, a 26-member panel of experts established to undertake a comprehensive analysis of Colorado’s criminal code, sentencing laws, prevention programs and other aspects of the criminal-justice system, was created due to the disproportionate number of Latino inmates behind bars.
The Commission, which will report annually to the Governor, legislature and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, also was formed after two teenage boys – one of them Hispanic – committed suicide following transfers from juvenile detention facilities to adult prisons.
Levy and Huerter say Colorado is increasingly spending more money on jails and prisons even though the state’s crime rate continues to fall.
“The crime rate in Colorado is half of what it was in 1982, but the budget for the prison system has doubled since that time. (In 1982), the prison budget was 2.8 percent of the total state budget. Now it’s 8.6 (percent),” Levy, a Democrat who represents Boulder, Gilpin and Clear Creek Counties, told Efe.
Colorado currently earmarks $6.5 billion a year for the prison system, while the budget for education is $3.5 billion.
The legislator said that although the rate of growth of the prison population has slowed in Colorado, that state remains in the top 10 in terms of the highest percent annual increase in the number of inmates.
Having so many people in jail “starts to become something negative,” not only from the budgetary point of view, but also “from the (standpoint of) the goal of successfully reintegrating inmates into society,” Levy said.
“For some prisoners, being disconnected from work and family for a long time makes it difficult for them to successfully reintegrate themselves. Our study shows that we can have better results through treatment and rehabilitation programs and options,” she said.
Prisoners face two serious problems in trying to rejoin society, the lawmakers pointed out.
First, the work skills inmates acquire inside prison are not in high demand in the marketplace and ex-prisoners undergo no rehabilitation process once they are freed.
“Inside prison, they are taught to make furniture. But how many people can make a living making furniture? We should be teaching them computer and other technology-related skills,” Levy said.
In addition, when the former inmates complete their sentence and seek employment, they must by law acknowledge that they previously spent time behind bars and therefore and are often not hired for that reason.
But, according to Huerter, employers must understand that 74 percent of inmates in state detention facilities are considered non-violent and the vast majority of them serve sentences ranging from one month to two years.
That means, Huerter said, that with the cooperation of employers and properly trained Latino community leaders and the necessary funding “a large number of former convicts could find work and once again be productive members of society.”
That alternative also is less costly, since while keeping an adult behind bars costs $30,000 a year, supervising their parole during that same 12-month period costs just $3,500.
In the case of juvenile delinquents, the annual incarceration cost is $80,000, while probation amounts to just $7,200. EFE