The Politics of Prisons in Colorado is Just like the Politics of Every Other Issue even the DNC: Four Principles Sum it All Up By Phillip Reynes
The number of people under the control of our criminal justice system has risen to a staggering 7.2 million people in 2006 . This is a staggering number of people making America the country with the highest per capita prison population in the world. The cost to the tax payer is tens of billions of dollars. The cost to families and society is even higher. Is this what has come to define America? How did we as a society come to be the largest prison state in the world? Further, why are we in Colorado so enthusiastically embracing the politics prisons as industry?
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the keeper of federal statistics on crime and criminal justice information for the federal government, more then two million offenders are presently in jail or prison today in America . Another 4.2 million are currently on probation and nearly 800,000 are on parole. This comes to 7.2 million people! What is even more shocking is the fact that many experts believe that seven to ten percent of all prisoners in the United States are factually innocent of the charge they where convicted off! That means that somewhere between 504,000 to 720,000 people this country are in prison, on parole, or probation for a crime that they in fact did not commit.
The cost to taxpayers alone comes to about 45 billion dollars and is causing some states too rethink there policies of harsh “through away the key” prison policies that have been the hallmark of republican crime efforts. In California some 170,000 prisoners will be sent as far away as Tennessee to private prisons to help relieve the overcrowding of California’s penal system. Colorado has sent hundreds of prisoners out of state to serve their sentences in private for profit prisons.
Rebecca Blank, a senior fellow in economics at the Brookings Institute, says “There are a number of states that have talked about an early release of prisoners deemed non-threatening. The problem just keeps getting bigger and bigger. You’re paying a lot of money here. You have to ask if some of these high mandatory sentences make sense.”
The BJS report come right after the release of the Pew center’s report showing that 1% of all US adults are currently behind bars. The Pew report underscores the sad fact that the United States has the largest prison population in the world. In comparison to other industrialized nations, the U.S. rate of incarceration is 5-8 times that of Canada and most of Western Europe.
The 10 countries with the highest incarceration rates in the world are the US, The Cayman Islands, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Bahamas, The US Virgin Islands Belize, Bermuda, and last but not least Kyrgyzstan. How do we compare to select countries from around the world? To give some kind of idea of where America stands. We incarcerate per capita more then 5 times as many people as the UK; 6 times as many as Canada, Australia and Spain; almost seven times more then Germany, France, the Netherlands or Italy; and a staggering 18 times more people per capita as Japan. Yet we in the US think of ourselves as a free country despite these facts. If you look at incarceration in terms of people per 100,000 the US compares as follows: US 699; Russia 644; South Africa 400; UK 125; Canada, Australia, and Spain 110; Germany 95; France, Italy, and the Netherlands 90; Switzerland 85; Sweden 60; and last Japan at 40 per 100,00.
Though US crime rates have actually fallen in recent years, a law-and-order atmosphere and more jail time with longer sentences under mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws are keeping the prisons filled. The European press and many outside our country view our prison system as a key component of political repression, designed to keep a lid on growing social tensions resulting from unprecedented levels of social inequality in the US.
A New York Times article by Adam Liptak says the following:
“The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners, a reflection of a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations. Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.”
The fact that America, land of the free, could have such a dubious distinction is shocking and I have to ask how this has come to be. My conclusion is that it is due to the nature of our political process and the nature of capitalism. Several specialists here and abroad pointed to a surprising explanation for the high incarceration rate in the United States: democracy. Most state court judges and prosecutors in the United States are elected and are therefore sensitive to a public that is, according to opinion polls, generally in favor of tough crime policies. In the rest of the world, criminal justice professionals tend to be civil servants who are insulated from popular demands for tough sentencing. Mr. Whitman, who has studied Tocqueville’s work on American penitentiaries, was asked what accounted for America’s booming prison population. “Unfortunately, a lot of the answer is democracy — just what Tocqueville was talking about,” he said. “We have a highly politicized criminal justice system.” We also have a media that cares only for ratings, money, and to support the corporate overlords who control our political system.
I think many people who fallow politics would agree that politicians and politics in general, revolve around four things as it is practiced in the America today. These four things are; 1) Politics manly revolves around self interest; 2) Politicians must acquire wealth, power, and status regardless of weather there goals and aims are altruistic; 3) The issues and ideals that are espoused by politicians are more often then not political weapons and not in themselves valued by politicians; and 4) All of the above principles apply equally to bureaucracies . Our founding fathers, people like Jefferson, Washington, and Samuel Adams would look at this state of affairs with repugnance but the truth is the only people who doubt that politics has come down to these four principles (or something very similar) in contemporary America are also the same people who believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Clause.
Let’s use Colorado as an example and look at how the principles outlined above have played out in that state. In order to do this we need to look at some general facts about crime and about Colorado. We will start with crime. In the year 2000 Colorado held 16,833 prisoners in state prison, private (for profit), and county jails and in just seven years (2007) this number had ballooned to 22, 662 prisoners representing an increase of 74.27% in just less then six years. This represents an annual increase of 4.9% per year and will cause the state of Colorado to spend more on prisons then it does for anything else with the one exception of road repair and maintenance.
Beginning in the early 1990s, crime rates began to decline significantly around the nation. In the seven-year period 1991-98 the overall rate of crime declined by 22%, violent crime by 25%, and property crime by 21%. These facts are both indisputable and easily verified; any one who goes to the BJS web site can verify them. Some might say that increased incarceration works because of this fact but consider that during the national decline in crime from 1991 to 1998, states with the largest increases in incarceration experienced, on average, smaller declines in crime than other states (I would guess that this is due to harsh sentencing creating mal-adjusted anti-social people). The “above average” states increased their rate of incarceration by an average of 72% (Colorado beat this average) and experienced a 13% decline in crime, while the rate of incarceration in “below average” states rose by 30% and crime rates declined by 17% . It would seem that higher incarceration rates do not correlate to lower crime rates. Common sense would say that longer incarceration and increased incarceration makes for ex offenders who are less socialized and more institutionalized reentering society. Further, Colorado ranks among the lowest of all states in programs to help ex offenders reintegrate into society. Additionally; experts agree that increases in the use of imprisonment in recent years have been much more the result of policy decisions – drug arrests, harsher sentencing policy, and increased revocation of parole violators – than changes in crime rates.
As too Colorado and the politics of the state several issues should be born in mind. First: the state has a little over 4.3 million people with almost half the population in the Denver metro area (comprised of Denver, Adams, Douglas, Aurora, and Jefferson counties). This small area of the state is where most of the Democratic base in Colorado lives. The rest of the state is mostly rural with some exceptions such as Pueblo, and Colorado Springs. These rural areas are where the Republican Party has maintained its base in Colorado. Until the 2006 elections Colorado was firmly under the control of the Republican Party which was under the leadership of former Governor Bill Owens.
Governor Owens has had a very tough crime policy which as I will show shortly is based on political self interest. In his State of the State address of 2003 he stated the following. “In the early 1990s, our state faced fiscal challenges. Then, as now, there were calls that we spend too much on prisons. Or that we should release felons early to save money. While it is appropriate to look at the cost of incarceration, I suggest, respectfully, that we must also look at the cost of not incarcerating criminals. In 1990, I wrote an opinion piece in the Rocky Mountain News on the myth that Colorado cannot afford to build new prisons. Here’s what I wrote: ‘I believe we cannot afford not to build the prison’s Colorado felons so clearly deserve…The costs to society of releasing that felon, in terms of increased police and court costs – not to mention pain and suffering – is often substantially greater.’” He went on to say; “We will not release criminals early for fiscal reasons. We will work with you to build new prisons to house criminals. We will keep our commitment to protect the people of Colorado.”
Former Governor Owens and his prison rhetoric is in every respect motivated by self interest and the desire for power. Consider that to be elected he had to carry the predominately republican and also rural parts of Colorado. These rural areas have seen the collapse of there once thriving farm economies. What has been the republican solution in Colorado to this issue? Prisons! Colorado’s unprecedented prison boom has been a boon for all the rural areas of the state that support the Republican Party. What’s even better for the republicans is that the inmates of these prisons come mostly from the democratic Denver metro area. One only needs to look at the former Governors justification for his lock them up and through away the key policies to see how hallow they truly are and to know how callus he is in regards to the welfare of the state he represents; a state that will be saddled for decades to come with booth the monetary and human cost of his ambitions and self interest.
Let’s look at his justification for Colorado’s prison policies. His arguments are dishonest and deceptive. They contain both lies and distortions. We should ask ourselves, does he believe this rhetoric? The fact that mainstream writers, criminologists and the statistical facts say he is very wrong does not explain his positions. Self interest does however explain his judicial philosophy.
Governor Owens sent a letter to the legislators and in particular to the state legislative Joint Budget Committee (JBC hereafter) in 2003 making the argument that it is indeed cheaper to incarcerate then to peruse other means of addressing crime. Let’s look at what he wrote and why it is so wrong. This is an excellent example of a politician using principles as political weapons. To be frank lets look at why it was and is so deceptive and dishonest because his position goes beyond political trickery and verges upon outright deceit.
First the governor in his letter sighted several studies that have been discredited. One notable citation is Edwin Zedlewski, “Making Confinement Decisions.” Written by a staff economist at the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), this research paper, has been severely criticized by academics and experts in the field of criminal justice as being poorly designed and careless in its conclusions. The benefit-cost analysis performed by Zedlewski is the focus of intense criticism and this suspect figure ($17.2 : 1 benefit-cost ratio) is a major foundation of Owens’ argument. Zedlewski’s has numerous critics who have repeatedly pointed out that his self-proclaimed “crude” methodology for estimating the average number of crimes committed by an average criminal in one year serves to vastly inflate the estimates of cost savings. In addition to overestimating the crime saved by imprisonment, Zedlewski misrepresents the cost of society’s response to crime and he ignores the diminishing returns from expanding use of incarceration; i.e., as incarceration is expanded to apply to lower-level offenders, the crimes prevented per-offender decreases. Due to the intense criticism focused on Zedlewski’s article (along with his self-admitted sloppy methodology), “Making Confinement Decisions” is rarely cited in serious criminal justice research.
The Governor goes on to reference Cavanagh and Kleiman, “A cost benefit analysis of prison cell construction and alternative sanctions.” This mysterious study was referenced by Dr. McCallin as an NIJ study, yet the NIJ has no record of the study and it does not appear in the National Criminal Justice Reference Service’s database of abstracts (the compilation of record for criminal justice related research) yet Owens sights it! I can’t despite years of research experience find a copy of this article to read, however, I have found one reference to Cavanagh and Kleiman’s report in the literature in an article in the journal Federal Probation, which compares the report to Zedlewski’s research and dismisses it as producing “inflated estimates of the benefits of imprisonment.” Whatever the original driving force of Cavanagh and Kleiman’s research in 1990 , at least one of the authors has since come forth with criticism of policies (like Colorado’s current system) that over-rely on incarceration. Kleiman in 2000 co-authored an article that criticized contemporary American criminal justice practices, saying that current policy is dependent upon incarceration as its only real punishment, and cannot get us to the level of safety that should be a civic birthright for all Americans. What is more, the benefits we have reaped from our increasingly high incarceration rates have come at a staggering cost. And the burden has been felt most acutely by those on whose behalf the struggle against crime and drug abuse most urgently needs to be fought: poor (largely black and Latino) Americans. Yet Owens uses this one article written years earlier in the authors career and expressing ideas repudiated by that author today!
Michael Block, “Supply Side Imprisonment Policy” is yet another example to be found in Owens letter justifying his judicial policies. Block’s 1996 article contains some information that supports the governor’s stance, but even more that refutes it. Perhaps Owens hoped that the state legislators in the Joint Budget Committee to which this letter was addressed to would not read or research any of the material he sites. Block conducts a benefit-cost study using a more dependable (although not ideal) model than Zedlewski. But in addition to more carefully selected data, Block’s calculations differ from Zedlewski’s because he distinguishes benefits and costs among a variety of types of crime; a key factor. He also differentiates between the benefits of increasing sentence length and the benefits of increasing the risk of imprisonment (i.e., the chance that a person will be sent to prison as the result of an offense also, sadly non of these studies address the damage prison does to a persons ability to ever become productive in society after their release). Block’s calculations find that lengthening sentences does not have a dramatic economic benefit to society especially in the case of non-violent crimes like burglary where costs exceed benefits. He does find that increasing the likelihood of imprisonment is cost effective in the case of violent crimes, but again finds that increasing incarceration for some property crimes produces a net economic loss. Block’s findings are congruent with research that has shown lengthening sentences has little deterrent effect and is economically impractical.
Although some right wing conservatives have been encouraged by Block’s support of increasing the likelihood of imprisonment for violent offenders, a theme introduced and championed by conservative public policy scholar James Q. Wilson, his thoughts on lengthy sentences directly oppose former Governor Owens’ position that reducing sentences poses an unacceptable harm to society. Block terms this thinking as “getting tough and getting it wrong,” warning “the benefit-cost results imply that [the] concentration on increasing sentence length in recent years is not particularly good public policy. ” Shockingly Owens used him to support a policy he would never approve sanction.
Owens in this same letter justifying his judicial policy continues in this disingenuous and even deceitful vein by sighting Don Gottfredson, “Effects of Judges’ Sentencing Decisions on Criminal Careers.” Perhaps one of the most glaring misuses of data in the governor’s letter is the claim (based on Gottfredson’s study) that “82 percent of offenders who were sentenced to some type of confinement were re-arrested within 20 years, according to a 1999 National Institute of Justice Study.” In fact, Gottfredson’s twenty-year longitudinal study found a re-arrest rate of 70% (not 82%) over twenty years. But in addition to the misquoted numbers, using Gottfredson’s work to support the governor’s position is shocking, given Gottfredson’s own conclusion at the end of the report, where he states that the study’s results “offer little support for the policy trends, prominent since this project began, that have supported increased use of confinement as a sentencing choice, emphasized longer terms, or accepted specific deterrence to reduce offenders’ recidivism.”
His letter starts by saying “one of the central and indispensable functions of government is to provide for public safety. One of the surest ways to achieve that is through incarceration.” While this statement might, at first glance, seem to be a strong statement of policy, it is riddled with problems, it is pure rhetoric and a classic example of fear mongering. First, the statement is what logicians call a causal fallacy (specifically a fallacy of complex cause). Any educated collage student who has taken a course in logic or basic philosophy can spot this simple kind of reasoning error. In simpler terms, the error in reasoning can be illustrate as follows:
• Public safety is a critical government function (true)
• Prisons are a tool to promote public safety (true)
• Therefore, any attempt to decrease prison populations is a threat to public safety (untrue)
The former governor’s argument assumes that prisons are the only way to ensure public safety, when in fact most policy makers, academics, and criminal justice professionals recognize there are many influences on crime and safety and that prisons are most definitely not the only way to insure public safety. Prisons are only one method of promoting public safety, and incarceration is not the most effective and efficient response to all crime.
The most problematic aspect of the governor’s February 27 letter to the JBC is his reliance on Zedlewski’s publication to justify a “no negotiation” policy on criminal justice. Not only has Zedlewski’s 1987 piece been widely discredited, but the way in which the governor uses the deficient $17.2 : 1 benefit-cost ratio is also inappropriate. The NIJ’s most recent publication concerning benefit-cost analysis and criminal justice cautions that, “when used improperly, (benefit-cost analyses) can become nothing but rhetorical ammunition in an ideological debate.” Other benefit-cost analyses have been published by NIJ (in more recent years) that were not mentioned in the governor’s letter, possibly because they employ more responsible methodology and thus show dramatically lower cost savings than Zedlewski does. Instead policy analysts should examine many alternatives to find the one that has the highest benefit-cost ratio, or the most ‘bang for the buck.’ Indeed, regulatory agencies are often required by law to consider all technically feasible alternatives to proposed regulations.”
Another misleading statistic used in the governor’s letter to the states Joint Budget Committee is the claim that “63 percent of felons were charged with a felony within three years of release.” This statement (attributed only to an “NIJ study”) has several problems. The number of ex-prisoners who are charged with a felony is relatively meaningless, since it does not take into account cases where charges are dropped or the defendant is acquitted. The most recent national study of recidivism by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) finds that 47% of ex-prisoners were convicted of a new charge (felony or misdemeanor) in the first three years following their release from prison. Data released by the Colorado executive branch also paints a different picture. The Department of Corrections’ (DOC) most recent statistical reports shows the three-year return to prison rate over the last seven years has averaged 46%.
It should be noted that the CDOC (Colorado Department of Corrections) data differ dramatically from the BJS measure of new convictions, since it combines new prison commitments with the large numbers of technical returns (where offenders return to prison for violating the conditions of parole or probation—status offenses which would not result in criminal penalties but for the offender’s status as a parolee or probationer). Thus, the actual rate of new offenses in Colorado is somewhere below the 46% cited by the DOC because Owens in his zeal would send an offender back for things like being unable to find work or pay for court ordered treatment. In short his administration of the parole department crated a situation that led parole and probation officers to harass parolees and probationers into prison and then count them as being recidivists for being unable to meet conditions of parole or probation that are designed to promote failure.
Yet another disturbing aspect of the former governor’s letter is the fatalistic attitude expressed in his statement “we…know that releasing prisoners will result in new crimes committed—crimes that would not have occurred if a criminal remained behind bars.” If, indeed, Colorado’s criminal justice policy is based the assumption that all prisoners are guaranteed to re-offend, then this leads to the reduction ad absurdum that every convicted felon should receive a life sentence—a policy initiative which would involve costs so high that the repeal of TABOR would become necessary, along with massive cuts to other areas of state government (to an even greater extent than Colorado is already experiencing) as well as the suspension of any humanistic principle involving the ability of a person to redeem oneself. Instead, if money is invested in treatment, crime prevention, and reintegration programs, recidivism rates can be reduced further. Such funding, however, is highly unlikely to materialize when current budget restraints are combined with a rapidly growing prison population.
Governor Owens’ dismisses efforts to reevaluate criminal justice policies as “too-easy efforts” which threaten to “override our primary duty to protect the safety of Coloradans.” When presenting the letter, Dr. McCallin dismissed other states’ efforts to reduce prison populations as dangerous experiments with “releasing felons early” which will end up saddling society with additional murders. This inflammatory language serves only to degrade the public policy process and is both deceitful and disingenuous. There are numerous reforms that do not involve letting anyone out of prison early (much less violent offenders a category of criminal that has expanded as the governor changes the definition of what is a violent crime to include crimes that in some cases do not even have victims in the traditional sense ) and the constant focus on violent crime conveniently disregards the role that drug and property offenders have played in expanding our prison population.
The governor’s February 27th letter of 2004 uses discredited research, distortions of data, and scare tactics in an attempt to prohibit any policy changes that would result in a reduction of Colorado’s prison population. Consider that what has been outlined above are not just some but all the citations used by former Governor Owens in his letter to the JBC! This stance served Owens well in that it allowed him to spend huge amounts of taxpayer money in predominately Republican areas of the state. It served to use fear mongering to political advantage. Crime after all is down and has been going steadily down for several years. A great man, H.L. Mencken , once said; “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be lead safely) by menacing it with endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Today his statement about the aim of politicians especially former Governor Owens, has never been truer.
Democracy and our brand of capitalism are why we, the United States of America, are a prison state. Politicians do not any longer work for the good of all they work predominately out of self interest and this has hurt democracy, for today in America democracy serves capitalism. They, politician, curry favor as Owens did in pouring untold millions into rural republican areas of the state at the expense of areas that are democratic strongholds.
They use fear as a political weapon as well as moral and political principles as weapons at the expense of the poor and the defenseless by grossly exaggerating the dangers of crime and fostering policies designed to give political advantage instead of addressing realities. Owens and others in the Colorado state house have prostituted principles to serve there own ends because today politics in the US, especially in regards to issues like judicial policy or health care have based their policies upon four principles: 1) Politicians act in most all case out of self interest not public interest, i.e. how to get reelected at any price; 2) Politicians must acquire wealth, power, and status regardless of weather there goals and aims are altruistic, i.e. in funneling millions into areas that support their party at the expense of the publics general welfare; 3) The issues and ideals that are espoused by politicians are more often then not political weapons and not in themselves valued by politicians as in the ex governors letter to the JBC; and 4) all of the above principles apply equally to bureaucracies; as in how the CDOC and the Colorado justice system manipulate data to support there own ends and not the peoples welfare.
It is important to realize that former Governor Owens did not do what he did alone. Bureaucracies like the CDOC, the Sex Offender Management Board and the Colorado department of Justice not to mention numerous DA’s around the state aided by police and private prison interest helped and benefited by Owens misuse of facts and propagation of fear. These bodies manipulated victims rights groups and the people who belong to them shamelessly betraying these crime victims interests and prostituting them to serve there own lust for political power, money and status.
I know I have spoken for some time about former governor Owens and I also know that many who read this will say that we now have a democrat in the governor’s house who wants to reduce prison populations. Well as the song goes; “meat the new boss, same as the old boss.” Governor Ritter is really no better. He wants to reduce costs but has not had the guts to address the philosophies that lead us hear.
He like Owens lives by those same principles I discussed earlier. So as we congregate in Denver for the DNC remember that if there are arrests and violence those principles will be used to the power structures advantage. The press is for the most part a tool under the control of a power structure that does not want empowered people. Consider the August 16th article in the Denver Post titled, “Grim warehouse set to process convention arrests, ” the site is compared to Guantanamo with its razor wire and chain link fences. Mark Cohen of the protest group Recreate-68 in the Post article states, "It's just ridiculous, the thing looks like a dog pound,"
The fact is the relationship between we the people and the state is clearly illustrated by the transformation of criminal law in this country in the past few years. Most of us do not view ourselves as criminals and so we do not think that we need to worry about criminal law as it affects us individually. This is not true! The fact is you can and will be arrested if it suits the needs of the police and there masters, our politicians (Republican or Democrat). Look at the US incarceration rate that opened this article. Are Americans just more inherently criminal then every other countries population in the world? Of course not! Those of us who will be taking action at the DNC should keep in mind the principles listed in this article and remember that the spin politicians put on any direct action will be firmly grounded in those four things just as the rational for our failed health care system is and our failed prison system.