Colorado’s prison population has declined during pandemic, but it won’t last

Colorado has significantly lowered its prison population this year, but state analysts expect it’ll starting trending upward again soon.

After peaking at 23,000 in 2009, the state prison population has held steady at around 20,000 in recent years. The state reports that the population has declined 16.4% since February, down to about 16,000 people, and that the vacancy rate in state prisons has gone from 1% in February to 25% in November.

This is a massive shift from the previous trajectory. Just two years ago, the state expected the population to reach a record 25,000 in 2025. So urgent was state government’s perceived need to prepare for growing numbers that lawmakers in 2019 passed a bill to allow for the reopening of Centennial South, the decommissioned Cañon City prison that was built for solitary confinement. The state put more than $1 million toward renovating the prison in anticipation of population growth.

Now, the state projects it to bottom out at 15,767 in 2021, then rise to close to 17,000 by 2023, nonpartisan legislative economist Elizabeth Ramey told the state Joint Budget Committee.

There are a couple big reasons the population has fallen this year: the release of prisoners deemed to be low-risk and a 2019 bill to reduce penalties on drug possession charges. That bill became law and its early effects roughly coincided with the arrival of coronavirus in Colorado. The state reports that district court drug felony case filings are down 61.7 percent in 11 months, a far greater decline than has been reported for filings related to property crime, violent crime and all others.

The population was trending downward before the pandemic, anyway. Discretionary parole releases climbed 54% in the first six months of Gov. Jared Polis’ term, in 2019, compared to the same period in 2018. Polis also appointed as director of the Department of Corrections Dean Williams, who has said many times he hopes to see the prison population decline.

During Ramey’s presentation, Budget Committee member Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver, said, “We’ve got this kind of steady decline … (and) more rapid decline, but that’s happening at the same time as Colorado is rapidly growing overall population.”

Responded Ramey, “Statistically speaking, with in-migration and population growth, we’d also expect to see some growth in the offender population — not necessarily the inmate population. That’s because larger drivers have to do with decision-making across the pipeline.”

Ramey said the reason the state expects the population to tick back upward after next year is that there will be fewer prisoners deemed low-risk to release in the near future, since the Colorado DOC has released many who might have qualified for release in 2021 or 2022 this year, in an effort to contain the pandemic. The coronavirus has ravaged Colorado prisons, which have consistently been the sites of many of the state’s worst outbreaks, and where cases and deaths have both risen sharply of late.

She also said that the projected uptick is attributed to the expectation that Colorado courts will eventually return to normal, after delays and interruption since March.

Another member of the Budget Committee and a leading voice for prison reform in the legislature, Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, told The Denver Post she’s encouraged by results of the 2019 drug defelonization law, and the prison population trend in general. Reform-minded groups have called on Polis to release even more prisoners in the pandemic.

“Absolutely, we need to do more. What we’ve seen is that we can safely reform our prison laws and depopulate our prisons,” she said. “We have an opportunity to do more because of COVID that has impacts that are lasting.”

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