Paul Nitze: Public safety compromised by cuts to state’s budget
September 24, 2009
If you want to know what barely controlled exasperation sounds like, listen to Gov. Ritter’s interview on Colorado Public Radio this past Monday morning. The governor tried his best to sound stoic after learning that the $318 million he just sliced off the budget isn’t enough. He will now have to come up with another $240 million in cuts.He’s got no control over that number, and he can’t do much to defer the cuts. Budget analysts who work for the state Legislature use a formula that’s driven by expected tax receipts, and they project a big lag between economic recovery and revenue growth. In the interview, the governor hinted that he thinks budget analysts are too gloomy by half, but he’s stuck with their number.So if you think the last round of cuts hurt, get ready for the knife to hit bone. Two-hundred and forty million dollars off a budget that tops $7 billion may not sound like a whole lot, but it’s actually an enormous number. That’s because so much of that $7 billion is effectively walled off from discretionary cuts, most notably the state’s funding for K-12 education.Where is the governor going to go for those savings? One area he’s likely to tap is the correctional budget. He’s already taken $25 million from the corrections budget during the first round of cuts, and chances are he’ll go back to the well for more.During that first round, the governor saved $19 million by shortening mandatory parole periods from five years to three years (or less in some cases). He also rolled back mandatory release dates by six months for a big chunk of the prison population.These cuts have triggered a classic knee-jerk reaction from the media and the punditry. Defenders of the governor point out that he doesn’t have much of a choice (true), and that the cuts are carefully calibrated to keep the public just as safe as under the old budget (false).You don’t need to be on the front lines of the criminal justice system to know that when you shorten parole periods for hard-core criminals, public safety suffers. As someone who’s in court every day, I know that parole can be an effective deterrent.It’s not just a coincidence when I see defendants in court on misdemeanor domestic violence charges only a few months after getting off parole. They know that once they’ve killed their parole, a misdemeanor is only going to expose them to a few months in the county jail, and not a return trip to DOC. Moreover, misdemeanor bonds are manageable, whereas a parole hold means the defendant sits in custody until he pleads the case or goes to trial.But our soundbyte-happy political climate means the governor has no choice but to claim that he’s protecting public safety while he’s cutting back on parole periods. No one is going to hit him with a balanced, well-informed critique on the state’s prison budget. Rather, the Denver Post, the TV news stations, and other media outlets just want to play gotcha.What did the Post focus on last month when the cuts were revealed? They trolled through parole records to find the baddest of the bad who are eligible for early release, and then rehashed their crimes. Presumably when one of those felons commits a horrific new crime, which is only a matter of time, the Post will splash it across the front page and blame the governor for letting the guy (or gal) out early.This is a pathetic abdication of responsibility by the media. What the Post (and papers like this one) should be talking about is the fact that for more than two years we’ve had the most experienced players in criminal justice debating sentencing reform, with no fruit from their labors. The Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice was set up in early 2007 by the governor, and has yet to produce a set of recommendations.To be fair, neither the governor nor the sentencing reform commission could’ve predicted we’d be in this nasty a budgetary pickle. But even if the report hadn’t been acted on, a concrete set of recommendations, including trade-offs between prosecutors and the defense bar, could guide the governor in making cuts today.Instead, we’re engaged in a slapdash effort to conduct criminal justice reform by budgeting. This makes a comprehensive sentencing reform bill even less likely, because the defense bar figures that they can get most of what they want through budget cuts, without giving in on anything proposed by law enforcement. All they need to do is wait it out.This is all symptomatic of a larger problem. We’ve reached a political impasse in this country on criminal justice reform. Things have gotten so bad in California that, rather than address prison overcrowding in a rational way, the state Legislature has kicked the issue to the courts, which are now ordering prisoners released on humanitarian grounds.We spend an enormous amount on incarceration in Colorado – more than $800 million on corrections, and hundreds of millions of dollars more on the courts, prosecution and administration.We can either find a way out of a political morass built on superficial attacks and counterattacks, or we can wait until our hand is forced by the budget process and make cuts that don’t have much input from seasoned players and aren’t consonant with public safety.
Paul Nitze is a deputy district attorney in Adams County and has been a part-time Aspenite his entire life. Before attending law school, he worked as a legislative assistant to another part-time local, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
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