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February 14, 2007 - Denver Post (CO)

Aiming For Course Corrections On Prison Priorities

By Diane Carman

Ari Zavaras felt sick when he had to appear before the legislature's Joint Budget Committee recently. It was not because he thought the lawmakers would turn down his request for more money. No, it made him queasy to think they'd probably approve it.

The new director of the Department of Corrections calls his bureaucratic empire "the Pac-Man of state government" because it gobbles all the money.

Nobody disagrees.

Since 1985, general fund spending on corrections has grown from $57 million a year to $533.1 million; it's gone from 2.8 percent of the operating budget to 8.6 percent; and it keeps falling behind.

The latest estimate for meeting the needs of the exploding prison population in the state is $806 million over the next five years - and that's just to build the gulags. Staffing them is another cancer on the state budget, spreading at the rate of $27,500 per year for each inmate.

Zavaras' baby step toward slaying the monster that is savaging Colorado's quality of life is to restore funding for programs to rehabilitate prison inmates.

He's asking for money for treating things such as substance abuse, illiteracy, mental health problems, anger issues and the critically insufficient life skills of the inmates incarcerated in the state.

The objective, he said, is to keep inmates from committing crimes after they complete their sentences and are released to the community.

"For every 1 percent we can lower recidivism rates, it means $4.9 million we don't have to spend on prisons."

Then there's the significant fringe benefit that fewer crimes are committed when ex-cons don't reoffend.

"It's really a win-win," Zavaras said.

For sure.

It's just so inadequate.

The prison crisis is not something that calls for a bit of judicious tweaking.

It's Colorado's very own Iraq war.

It was sold to voters on flawed intelligence, distorted over the years to evoke irrational fear, exploited by politicians for their cynical self-interest and transformed into an industry that feeds on the whole unseemly, craven, warped public policy for the sole benefit of its own insatiable greed.

Now it's a bona fide quagmire, and nobody in power has the guts to admit it.

Colorado's prison population has exploded because politicians in the mid-1980s created the bogus war on drugs instead of doing the right thing - treating mental illness and addiction. Then to look tough, they doubled the sentences for all felonies.

It was a dream come true for corrections workers unions. It also was a slam-dunk for political poseurs with more ego than conscience.

Everybody knows it's a whole lot easier to campaign on attacking people than to dare to talk about real problems.

Now, 20 years and billions of dollars later, the war continues without end, and no surge in incarceration is going to stop it.

DOC figures reveal that of the 21,000 inmates in state prisons, more than 4,000 are doing time for drug offenses, and 50 percent of those arrests were for simple possession. At the same time, funding for drug-treatment programs in the state has plummeted.

In contrast, New York state funded an aggressive program targeting nonviolent drug offenders in 1990, offering them deferred sentences if they pleaded guilty and enrolled in drug-treatment programs.

It cut recidivism rates 87 percent.

While Colorado is hemorrhaging money to build more and more and more prisons, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has proposed closing dozens of prisons because of an 8,000-person drop in inmates, and is studying changes in sentencing laws to reduce the prison population further.

Zavaras said he's willing to consider "any and all proposals" for stopping the runaway growth of the prison industry in the state. He's not ready to advocate for the obvious solutions -- changing sentencing laws and the insanely self-perpetuating war on drugs.

If somebody else takes up the cause, he promises to listen, however.

Now all we need is a leader.

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