Despite Colorado’s reputation as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, the state legislature has not done much to reduce enforcement or penalties on drugs that remain illegal. According to a recent report published in the Colorado Independent, officials at the Department of Corrections have (again) gone to the State Legislature to request the reopening of a state prison in Cañon City. The request comes in response to the record-high number of drug overdoses recorded in the state in 2018, accompanied by a corresponding increase in the number of drug arrests.
The numbers are expected to keep going up
According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations, drug arrests across the state have been increasing nearly every year since 2013, when recreational marijuana was legalized. And prison sentences have been increasing right along with the number of convictions. According to a 2018 report published by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, the prison population is expected to continue to rise at rates the current state prison system won’t be able to handle.
“The population is expected to increase 38.2% between fiscal years 2017 and 2024, from an actual year-end inmate population of 20,101 to a projected population of 27,770.” - Adult and Juvenile Correctional Populations Forecasts, Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, January, 2018
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the increased percentage of additional adult men incarcerated (37 percent) is expected to fall below the projections, while the number of incarcerated female prisoners is expected to rise by nearly 49 percent.
But are the extra prison beds necessary?
Most of the increase, according to data produced by the state, will likely stem from a tendency for person convicted of a drug offense to be a repeat offender (recividism), as the state continues to treat chemical dependency as a crime. Currently, the Colorado Department of Corrections reports that nearly three-quarters of adults incarcerated in the state system suffer from some level of substance abuse disorder. And now some legislators are starting to propose sentencing reforms aimed at stemming the increasing prison population.
Due to the lack of treatment services in the current prison system, the likelihood of a person with a drug addiction returning to prison on a similar conviction is very high. Reducing recidivism may come down to making sure an inmate is in treatment and recovery prior to release.
As State Representative Leslie Herod (D-Denver) said, “Are they supposed to be there in the first place or are there other options? [Drug use is] a statewide epidemic. If we are treating this more as a public health issue than a criminal justice issue, we will make more progress.”
One bill being proposed (Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City) would provide money for mental health treatment programs to provide treatment and recovery services to inmates diagnosed with chemical dependency while serving their sentences. The idea would be to reduce the number of drug arrests on the street by reducing the number of former inmates who are released still to society without being in recovery.
Despite attempts over the years, it will be interesting to see whether the legislature would rather spend the money on locking more people behind bars, or helping them stay out of prison in the first place.