Feature: Outsmarting Crime

text by Margo Pierce
photo by Adrian Diubaldo

Christie Donner, Executive Director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, works at her desk

When a street cop says that simply throwing criminals in jail isn’t the way to protect the public, it’s worth listening. And when that street cop has worked his way up to a top position in the Colorado Department of Corrections, it carries that much more weight.

“By having programs inside the prison to teach some work skills, to teach some job trades, you’re actually greatly increasing public safety,” says Ari Zavaras, a former patrol officer and later chief of the Denver Police Department. “If you don’t do anything to change behavior when they’re incarcerated, you can expect the same behavior when they get out, and that’s what we found.”

With 21 state-run prisons, seven private prisons and more prisons being built to add approximately 1,600 more beds, Colorado has followed a policy of tough-on-crime sentencing for a long time.

Colorado locks up more people than most other states. Colorado’s incarceration rate is 506 per 100,000. The national average is 462; the average of the Western states is 458. Incarceration rates around the world are dramatically lower: South Africa (344), Mexico (191), England and Wales (145), China (118), Canada (116), France (88), Sweden (81) and Japan (60), according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

But Zavaras, now the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC), says DOC staff is fundamentally changing its approach to corrections in order to reduce recidivism.

“That is our primary mission, and they realize that the programs that we provide in the facilities, the additional services … really does provide for the very best public safety,” he says.

The impetus for these changes is the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, formed in 2007 by the state legislature “to enhance public safety, to ensure justice and to ensure protection of the rights of victims through the cost-effective use of public resources.” Through the Commission, people involved in every aspect of the criminal justice system looked at evidence-based practices for successful prisoner re-entry. Evidence-based practice consists of policies, procedures or programs proven to be effective.

In its first annual report, published in December 2008, the Commission noted that it made 66 recommendations, and since then “eight bills were passed by the 2009 General Assembly that reflected the work of the Commission.”

Those programs include working to get a valid state ID for each inmate, helping to find housing and identifying viable employment opportunities for a successful transition after incarceration. This is in addition to education, job skill development and treatment programs in prison.

“You can measure success on probation,” says Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (http://www.ccjrc.org/index.shtml) and commission member. “You can measure successful termination from parole, community corrections. You can look at this system and measure its effectiveness. That has changed how people think about how they do business.”

For more than 25 years, professional organizations, academics and others have been studying the effects of legislation and prison programs designed to enhance public safety, according to Donner. The commission has been looking at those studies and talking to experts in order to find ways to reduce recidivism.

“Part of the reason the resources are so strained is that we are incarcerating too many people at this point,” says Michael Pinard, a professor of law at the University of Maryland who specializes in prisoner re-entry. In 1973 over 200,000 people were incarcerated in the U.S. Today there are more than 2 million people in American prisons.  “Part of the resource constraint comes from the fact that we use the prisons and jails as a first-resort punishment. We really need to change this punitive mindset, because the bottom line is that mindset does not enhance public safety.”

The economic climate is creating an opportunity to challenge long-held beliefs, Pinard explains.

“The way to really shift the paradigm is to talk about this in the context of public safety,” he says. “Are we doing more harm to public safety by incarcerating individuals to this extent and then releasing them without the services and having this punitive mentality? Or would we be enhancing public safety if we came up with some other, more creative ways to deal with the problem that are also, by the way, cheaper?”

What research shows is that long prison sentences can have a detrimental effect over time. People are being locked up today for infractions that, 35 years ago, would not have landed them in jail, according to Pinard. As a result families are fractured, children with incarcerated parents are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system and communities that have a high rate of incarceration (such as black and Latino communities) have higher rates of crime and poverty.

So the cost of incarcerating prisoners is greater than the price of three meals, a bed, medical care and guards.

“After punishing them for a certain number of years and not providing these services, they go back into the community with no services, with no skills and they re-offend.” Pinard says. “That actually costs more in the long run in terms of dollars: not only do you have the human cost that goes along with that, you have a real financial cost that goes along with that as well.”

The DOC is now actively implementing changes that will help ease the transition out of prison so that inmates are less likely to return.

“We have re-entry people now in just about all of our facilities, all of our major facilities and even some that aren’t quite so large,” Zavaras says. “Their sole mission is preparation for re-entry, trying to address a lot of the obstacles that we know that [released prisoners] are going to be facing.

“A large number of our inmates have mental health issues, and we’ve also been able to extend medications now to just about all of the populations—those that are coming out. Before, we had no resources; they basically would discharge from the department with no meds to address their needs.”

After whipping up public fear about being “soft on crime,” politicians have to move cautiously when looking to implement change. This apparent move away from being “tough on crime” can be problematic when some programs aren’t fully understood, such as the Accelerated Transition initiative. Inmates already overdue for parole and facing mandatory release are reviewed to see if they meet a specific set of criteria for early release. The DOC says over 50 percent of inmates fit this description, and a sensationalized media report predicted the uncontrolled release of violent offenders.

“We’ve put in some safeguards,” Zavaras says. “Evidence-based research shows that most people going out on parole will fail within the first 6 to 12 months. So one of the things we’re doing with these accelerated transitions out of prison is we are up-fronting a lot of services—things like substance abuse counseling. We’re also … (managing) the risk, we’re also doing additional electronic monitoring when we think it’s appropriate.”

Another program Zavaras likes is an opportunity for those on probation to reduce their supervision time up to 50 percent if they meet specific criteria. Probation officers will have discretion, but an evidence-based evaluation will makes sure each individual possesses the skills and behaviors essential for success.

The reforms are meant to save the state money and, more importantly, protect the public.



The first round of reforms recommended by the commission were received well, according to Commission members. But in 2010, the commission plans to tackle sentencing reform, a sticky subject that strikes strong chords among politicians and voters. In an election year when politicians will be very keen to impress upon voters their stance on crime, the commission may have a harder time accomplishing reform.

“The make-up of the commission is bi-partisan,” Donner says. “That’s part of the utility of the commission in the vetting process. Because of the diversity of the make-up of the commission, there’s a lot of trust that’s given to the process.”

Responding to criticism from conservatives that say recommendations made by the committee are too liberal and liberals who complain the recommendations are too conservative, Donner says she’s not concerned about vague accusations. She says each recommendation is dissected until the commission as a whole agrees on final language, making recommendations very bi-partisan.

“In the past the legislation that has been developed as a result of recommendations has been viewed very favorably by the legislature,” she says. “That doesn’t mean automatic approval by the legislature, but I’m encouraged by the work of the commission.”

“The original intent was to promote public safety and that is the lens by which everyone is looking at this stuff,” Donner said.

And that view of public safety isn’t based on an emotional response to a horrible crime or someone trying to grab votes in an election year.

“What’s most important for people to understand is that the changes that are trying to happen are … not just because we have a budget crisis but because there’s actually research out there that supports these changes that says that, if we are willing to open our minds to a new way of thinking and a new way of developing policy and practice, we can actually promote public safety,” Donner says. “We can reduce recidivism. We can reduce victimization, and we can reduce costs in corrections.”

Those kinds of goals are supported by a person who has spent his career protecting the public.

“I’m not a social worker,” Zavaras says. “I’m not a touchy-feely kind of guy. I’m an old street cop who rose through the ranks, ended up serving as chief of police in Denver and I’ve been on the streets most of the years of my life, and the thing I tell them is, ‘With that background, I can tell you you’re gonna get your best public safety by doing the things that we’re talking about right now—increasing programming, teaching some job skills, increasing the educational level.’ ”

The Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice is working on a comprehensive review of sentencing practices, which hasn’t been done for over 20 years. For more information, visit :