Recidivism Rerun

By Chris Bolte

Illustration by Ross Evertson

According to a white paper produced by the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) in December, approximately 20 percent of Colorado’s prison population is behind bars for drug charges and 60 to 80 percent have drug abuse problems. With the budget deficit affecting programs across the state, CCJJ is making recommendations to reduce recidivism—repeat offenses that result in people returning to prison. A major focus will be improving treatment options.

The white paper cited a  2001 statistic from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) where out of every $100 spent on substance abuse in Colorado, only $0.06 cents goes to treatment—ranking Colorado 49th out of fifty states. Though spending has improved slightly, the 2009 average for all states was still only $2.38 going to treatment for every $100 spent. One method of combating both the inefficient use of resources spent on locking drug users up and the lack of funding for treatment was addressed in House Bill 10-1352. This bill effectively lowered most controlled substance sentences while increasing fines. Bill Kilpatrick, Golden chief of police and commission member, said that saving money from these reductions was not, in itself, enough. Putting that money into treatment services is equally important.

Grayson Robinson, Arapahoe sheriff and chair of the drug policy task force, stated that $1.4 million from this bill along with another $2 million from medical marijuana taxes are slated to go toward treatment.

Once the funds are available for treatment, the next issue the commission is tackling regards whether or not those funds will be used effectively. Kathy Sasak, previous commission chair who was recently replaced by James Davis, described past funding efforts such as Scared Straight and DARE which have failed, “I think historically in government, both at the federal and state level and even the local level, sometimes we have gone after grants or we have prioritized funding because something sounds like it is going to be a good program. And we have found that those sound-goods may not be actual good outcome programs. The evidence has shown that [DARE and Scared Straight] are not beneficial programs, in fact they’re the exact opposite”

In addition to drug-policy changes, CCJJ is making recommendations to change parole policy, improve housing options and alter sentencing.

With recidivism rates holding at about 50 percent in most places across the country, the reasons behind this number are wide and varied. CCJJ’s 66 recommendations for prisoner re-entry reflect just how varied these reasons are. The recommendations are divided into three categories; legislative practices (LP), general practices (GP) and business practices (BP).

In 2007, when the commission first began, the Office of Research and Statistics released a report on the Status of Parolee Returns to Prison in Colorado; 8,500 offenders were released on parole. Of these parolees, about 4000, or 47 percent, returned to prison, 3,000 for technical violations.

As an example of a technical violation, Lori Swanson-Lamm, director of intensive services at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, mentioned that sometimes parole can be revoked based simply on associations with those committing crimes, even if the parolee has done nothing wrong. She mentioned five areas—housing, employment, health/ medications, healthy networks and addictions—where those on parole and probation encounter the most difficulty.

The commission has established three recommendations addressing the issue of housing, two of which are well under way. GP-25 has to do with educating housing authorities. GP-26 focuses on a pilot program through the Denver Sheriff’s Department to house parolees in community corrections instead of paroling them homeless. This program accepts parolees who have difficulty getting into standard community corrections. By June 2010, 20 offenders had been in the program with 75 percent of them terminating their parole successfully.

Several of the 66 recommendations have not been implemented due to the recession. One example of these stagnant recommendations is the increase of gate money—funds received when an inmate is released—adjusted for inflation from $100 to $390. Inmates will continue to receive $100 because there is not enough money to increase this sum.

When asked whether the coming year held any promising trends, Lamm stated that there is a “big question mark” over the probation and parole programs. Funding cuts over the last two years are expected to continue in 2011, making an already tenuous situation even more so.    

One area in which the probation system is changing for the better is what is called motivational interviewing. Sasak described the old approach for probation officers as being “... catch[ing] somebody doing something wrong. More of a police-oversight-enforcer process.” She described motivational interviewing as a method in which both the individual probationer and the probation officer are invested in the outcome. If the probationer takes the initiative and understands how their lives are going to be improved by contributing to society then their rates of succeeding and not recidivating are higher.

 “[This process] takes the persons dreams and aspirations into consideration,” Lamm said. Earlier methods used cookie cutter approaches that contained preconceived notions, whereas motivational interviewing helps to meet the specific needs of each client, Lamm said. •