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Lawmakers Question Colorado Prison Spending

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DENVER (AP) – Colorado’s inmate population is about the same as it was in 2004, but the proposed budget for the state Department of Corrections is about $150 million higher than it was eight years ago – and it’s raising questions from lawmakers who want to reduce spending.

“That’s obviously a huge disparity there,” Rep. Mark Waller, the third-ranking Republican in the House, said this week.

The debate over prisons is expected to heat up over the coming weeks as lawmakers finalize next year’s budget. It could also play an important role as Republicans look for ways to fund a $98.6 million property tax break for seniors that Gov. John Hickenlooper and fellow Democrats say the state can’t afford without cutting education.

Colorado’s quarterly revenue forecast Monday will also give lawmakers a better idea of how much money they have to spend.

The corrections department’s budget request is $646 million, about 9 percent of the state’s general fund. It’s about the same portion of the budget taken by higher education, which has been cut repeatedly in recent years.

In 2004, the budget for corrections was nearly $497 million. Back then there were about 20,700 prisons in the system, almost exactly the same number projected to be incarcerated in 2013.

During the last five months, the prison population has decreased by 946 and the drop is expected to continue, said Katherine Sanguinetti, department spokeswoman. But she said that doesn’t tell the whole story for why the department’s spending is increasing, and that the prison population is not reflective of what the budget should be, especially when inflation is factored in.

“We don’t have any control of some of those costs – utility costs, medical costs, transportation. Those are things that we have no control over,” she said.

Sanguinetti said about 53 percent of the corrections budget goes to its 6,200 employees. She said expenses for health, dental and life insurance for employees have increased, as has the cost of providing medical treatment for inmates.

The number of inmates has decreased with alternative court sentences, discretionary parole releases, and a decrease in parole revocations, Sanguinetti said. Crime is also down.

Waller said lawmakers are partly responsible for the declining prison population because they passed legislation to reduce felony drug sentences.

“We’ve reduced the number of prisoners, but they keep asking for more money,” he said.

Waller said there are “significant discussions going on right now about a potential closure,” of a prison.

Republicans have their sights on the new Colorado State Penitentiary II, a prison in rural Canon City, which houses prisoners in solitary confinement. The number of prisoners in solitary confinement has also declined, Sanguinetti said.

Sen. Mary Hodge, a Democrat in the Joint Budget Committee, said she would be open to closing a prison like CSP II if it has too many empty beds, and it’s used only for solitary confinement.

“If we can find something else to do with the prison, sell it, I’d be fine,” she said. “I’m very open to the idea.”

Republican Rep. Jon Becker, another member of the budget committee, said he believes “there is tremendous savings to be had in the department of corrections.”

But he warned about closing a prison without first researching how it would affect a community and whether shuttering a facility will result in savings.

Becker was skeptical of the state’s decision last year to close Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in rural Bent County, an area that opponents of the closure argued would hurt the local economy for many years.

“I think we need to look at all prisons in our whole system and see which one – or if any – are the more responsible one for us to close or reduce, and I think you’ll see some movement in the next month to two months as to what that’s going to look like,” he said.

- By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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