By Gene Davis, DENVER DAILY NEWS
Christy Morris’ brother is in the midst of a 38-year prison term after getting three strikes for drug and burglary related offenses.
Morris, who works for the Denver Women’s Commission, finds it sad that her and her brother grew up in the same family and were given the same opportunities, yet her brother is spending the majority of his life in jail. Morris often thinks about how her brother’s fate could have possibly been prevented if he got treatment for his substance abuse problems after his first arrest instead of being put in jail.
Morris wrote a paper on alternative sentencing and recidivism rates and found that Colorado is rated as the worst U.S. state for having the highest amount of road blocks for people who are coming out of prison and trying to get reestablished back in society. The recidivism rate for Colorado inmates is more than 50 percent, she added.
“If we take that money out of housing (prisoners) and putting it into community assistance programs, that would just keep the costs down and we could have viable citizens rather than having prisoners,” she said.
Morris is hoping that the next Denver mayor will consider sentencing reform and sentencing alternatives as a main priority. Morris is supporting Mayor candidate Doug Linkhart, who has long championed judicial sentencing reform.
“We’re in a situation where so many people are going to jail and prison for things that would be better handled on the outside,” said Morris.
Linkhart said judicial sentencing reform is a big issue for him because it’s something that would have an immediate and long-term impact on the city’s cash-strapped budget. The Denver jail population has tripled over the past 30 years while the city’s population has only grown by 20 percent.
Linkhart opposes mandatory sentences because they don’t allow for judicial discretion. He also disagrees with putting people in jail like Marvin Booker, the homeless man arrested for drug paraphernalia who died in jail after an altercation with officers, while medical marijuana is legal.
Linkhart pointed to the 2009 analysis of the five main programs funded by the Crime Prevention and Control Commission — which include Drug Court, court-to-community mental health services and pretrial supervision — that found that the programs combined provide more than a 180-percent return of investment.
For the $2.3 million that was committed by the commission to the five programs, the city experienced a savings of approximately $6.3 million per year, the report found. A 2010 analysis of the programs is scheduled to be released this week.
Linkhart believes the city missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime to save money by not postponing the construction of a $25 million jail annex and possibly directing that money elsewhere. The councilman wanted to ask voters — who approved the construction of the annex in 2005 as part of a $378 million plan to also build a new courthouse and jail — if they wanted the city to use that bond money elsewhere.
“We all say prevention works, we all go to the galas, the balls, the luncheons, the yard sales to support these programs,” he said. “But then when it makes a difference we have to have the courage to cut the money that we’ve saved.”
The city currently has 400 empty jail beds, which makes the annex unnecessary, according to Linkhart. A majority of council members voted in favor of building the annex.
Denver City Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz said earlier this year that while the incarceration rate has recently dropped, the crime rate could spike back up in the future, making the annex necessary. She pointed out that the city could rent out the spare jail beds to the state or federal government until they are needed for Denver inmates.
Linkhart, however, said that the city wouldn’t profit from renting out the beds after capitol costs are weighed in. A compromise was reached to a degree after dedicating part of the annex to reentry programs.
The Denver Sheriffs’ Department declined comment because they don’t comment on political matters, according to spokesman Frank Gale.
There are 10 percent fewer inmates today than there were three years ago. Lawmakers generally agree that the Crime Prevention Commission programs and Denver Road Home helped cause the decline in prisoners. Morris hopes whoever is elected the next Denver Mayor will continue investing in the programs and take judicial sentencing reform seriously. “I think we should look at how much money we’re spending on incarceration,” said Morris. “There’s a lot at stake.”