Briefing from the Department of Corrections
COMMITTEE ON JOINT JUDICIARY
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01:33 PM -- Briefing from the Department of Corrections
Ari Zavaras, Executive Director of the Department of Corrections (DOC), provided the committee with an overview of the department. He discussed the difficult economic times and how that impacts DOC. He explained the budget reduction plan for the department. In the last economic downturn, he stated that DOC had to eliminate programs and reduce staff. He indicated that in recent years most of those positions have been restored, but not all. Mr. Zavaras discussed measures to ensure public safety. The current recidivism rate is over 50 percent which, according to Mr. Zavaras, is related to the fact that DOC only has the funding to perform the core function of public safety. Mr. Zavaras discussed recidivism efforts as integral to the mission of the department. He also discussed the importance of in-prison treatment for offenders who use drugs. He explained that recidivism reduction leads to lower costs for the department in the long run.
Mr. Zavaras discussed the growing parole population and the services for parolees that help to support offenders as they transition into the community. He noted that as the parole population increases, it becomes difficult to provide the services with the funding that they have. He stated that their budget will be reduced by approximately $50 million and they will be reorganizing and decommissioning two of their prisons. They also will be selling a ranch in Chaffee County for additional funds. He discussed the increase in the per diem for the private prison providers; however, it has been proposed that these rates will be decreased again. Mr. Zavaras noted that the private providers are facing similar economic problems with the downturn. Mr. Zavaras emphasized the difficulty of cutting the budget while still ensuring public safety. He discussed the importance of promoting change in the behavior of inmates as the key to reducing recidivism and ensuring public safety.
Mr. Zavaras discussed other methods for changing inmate behavior, including ways to use visitation policies. He related that pre-release programs have been instituted. He stated that career development for offenders is another important tool for preventing recidivism. He discussed the growth rate for the prison population and noted that the rate is decreasing in recent years. Mr. Zavaras talked about the difficulty in measuring prevention efforts. Mr. Zavaras noted that the Legislative Council Staff prison population projections do show an increase in the population. He explained that the projected growth rate for the prison population is 2.7 percent and the growth rate for the population on parole is 5.3 percent. He emphasized the importance of prison education programs in reducing recidivism. He explained the partnerships that DOC has with both the community college system and with the Department of Labor to help offenders find employment.
Mr. Zavaras highlighted the department's 100 percent accreditation rating which means that 100 percent of the department has passed a set of national standards. He noted that Colorado is one of 11 states to receive this designation. Mr. Zavaras discussed the upcoming challenges concerning the budget. He explained that programs that were cut in the last downturn have not been restored. He discussed the issue of offender assaults and staff use of force. Mr. Zavaras also noted the increase in food costs and medical services. He indicated the difficulties concerning offenders with mental illness, including those offenders on parole. He concluded by saying that public safety will always remain their top priority.
Representative Court asked about where the inmates will go with the closing of the facilities. She also asked about why violence within the system has increased and why individuals with mental illness are entering the prison system. Mr. Zavaras explained that the increased incidence of inmates with mental illness began many years ago when community mental health centers were shut down. As these individuals act out, they enter county jails or state prisons. As for the individuals at the facilities that are closing down, he stated that they will be moved to other existing state facilities or to a private prison within the state. Mr. Zavaras also noted that, as there is increased violence in the community, violence also increases in the prisons. He explained that in particular gang violence is a problem. Senator Carroll asked about decision to close public facilities rather than moving offenders out of private facilities and what is the ratio of public to private prisons. Mr. Zavaras noted that the reason for closing the state facility is because of fiscal reasons. He also indicated that this closure will not increase the percentage of offenders at private prisons. He stated that if they were to take the prisoners out of the private facility, those would be filled with out of state prisoners or federal prisoners. He also noted that one of the facilities that is closing is an expensive facility to operate and the other facility is fairly small and also expensive to operate. Senator Carroll asked about access to treatment for offenders with substance abuse problems and mental illness.
Senator Lundberg asked about faith-based programs as a means of helping to reduce recidivism. Senator Newell asked about helping individuals who are laid off as a result of these closures and helping them to transition into new jobs. Mr. Zavaras stated that he did not think that they would have to have layoffs, but rather staff will be able to transfer to other facilities. Senator Hudak asked about the increase in lockdowns and violence against staff. She asked if this can be attributed to double bunking. Mr. Zavaras indicated that one issue is the fact that they do not have the high security beds that they need. Senator Newell asked about sentencing reform. Mr. Zavaras noted that he is not opposed to sentencing reform, but the department does not usually get involved in those conversations because their mission is public safety. Representative Pace asked about the ranch in Chaffee County that the department plans to sell. Senator King asked about the percentage of inmates who are illegal aliens. Mr. Zavaras noted that there are 1500 foreign-born inmates, but he does not know how many are illegal. He explained that DOC is working with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who are coming to the prisons and determining which inmates are illegal and have deportation orders. Representative McCann asked about the cuts to the therapeutic offerings. Representative Ryden asked about the possibility of Guantanamo prisoners coming to Colorado. Mr. Zavaras explained that these prisoners would not be coming to the state system, but instead they would essentially be military prisoners who might be housed in military facilities or in a federal facility.
Representative Levy asked about the sex offender treatment program. Mr. Zavaras asked Joan Shoemaker, representing the DOC, to come to the table to discuss this issue. Ms. Shoemaker discussed changes made to staffing for this program. She also noted that more offenders have been released to the community. Ms. Shoemaker discussed the problem of availability of treatment slots.