R epublicans often claim to be the party of fiscal conservatism and limited government, but show little enthusiasm for applying those principles to Colorado’s hugely expensive prison bureaucracy. So when sentencing reform bills pop up in the next legislative session, it will be an excellent opportunity for Republicans to show if they really are the party of fiscal discipline, or if they are going to leave the heavy lifting to the Democrat majority.

In 1985, the Colorado Legislature arbitrarily doubled the maximum penalties in Colorado’s presumptive sentencing range for all levels (and all types) of felony crimes. Colorado’s inmate population more than doubled in the next five years. It has more than doubled again since.

To keep pace with such unprecedented prison growth, successive legislatures and governors have pushed corrections spending from around $97 million to over $675 million of general fund appropriation.

That’s a more than 10 percent annual compound growth rate in prison spending. So for decades, “fiscal conservatives” have been active participants in one of the most extreme spending sprees in state history.

In the 2009 legislative session, Democratic Senator John Morse of Colorado Springs introduced Senate Bill 286, which would have kept our current very tough sentences for violent and sex crimes, while rewriting a significant portion of Colorado’s criminal code. Dozens of other Democrats signed on to the bill.

The Republican opposition was both unified and visceral. Senate minority leader Josh Penry of Grand Junction called SB 286 “radical” and “wrong.” Senator Scott Renfroe of Greeley said the bill “caves into crime.”

And Republicans had a point. SB 286 sought to reform too many different types of criminal statutes at one time to be allowed to become law. While sentencing reform has the potential for significant long-term cost savings to taxpayers, there can also be unintended consequences to doing too much, too quickly and all at once.

None the less, Republicans showed resistance to taking any responsibility for decades of run-away prison spending when out of the 40-plus pages and numerous statutory changes in SB 286, they couldn’t find a single reform they were willing to publicly support.

Lawmakers’ ability to significantly affect the long-term growth of the prison population, and thus the corrections budget, is through their prerogative to write — and rewrite — the state’s sentencing and parole laws and policies.

To that end, the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) has been meeting all year with the mandate to make recommendations to the legislature for reform.

As the minority party, Republicans have the option of using Democrat-sponsored sentencing and parole reform legislation as “soft on crime” attack ammunition. This may even be an effective strategy in firing up some Republican-leaning voters who believe prison spending is somehow immune to the same fiscal scrutiny as the rest of the budget.

But for Republicans who want to establish a reputation as principled advocates of limited government and restrained state spending, the last thing they should allow is for Democrats to school them in the hard work and tough legislative choices necessary to bring some badly needed discipline to Colorado’s profligate prison spending.

Mike Krause is operations director and runs the Justice Policy Initiative at the Independence Institute

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