25 July 2006

The Root Causes of Crime in Colorado

One of Colorado's fastest growing budget line items is the corrections budget. In the most recent fiscal year, 12.5% of the general fund state budget in Colorado went to corrections, up from 9.8% ten years ago.

This is driven largely by "war on drugs" era increases in the length of criminal sentences in the state. According to the Joint Budget Committee: "The growth in the inmate population is the primary factor driving the Department of Corrections' budget." Thus, far, Colorado has largely focused on finding places to put criminals rather than on reducing correction costs through efforts to address its root causes.

As a result, in the most recent year, state prisons were so strained that housing inmates was only possible due to the fact that 425 inmates at any given time who should have been in state prison were backlogged in local jails awaiting prison space, and another 4,954 were in private prisons. The total Colorado inmate population, including these inmates, was 23,159 in the 2006-2008 fiscal year. On top of that parole populations have grown at a "compound annual rate of 10.5%" in the past ten years.

Referendum C freed up money to address root causes of crime in the 2006 legislative session budget. But, the state underutilizes efforts to address the root causes of crime, which could shrink that budget and also benefit society by reducing crime. This is to a great extent of a produce of policy decisions made by Governor Owens. For example, in 2002, a bill, SB 39, to reduce drug sentences modestly and use the funds to pay for drug treatment, which passed the State Senate by a bipartisan 26-9 margin, and passed the State House by a 62-1 margin, was vetoed by the Governor.

Three important root causes of crime are substance abuse, mental illness and a lack of education. The vast majority of convicted felons are individuals with one or more serious problems that prevent them from functioning productively in society. I'll examine each of these issues in turn.

Substance Abuse

A sample of Denver arrestees in 2003 showed that the percentage who tested positive for use of illegal drugs far exceeded the percentage arrested for drug crimes. Of men arrested, 72.6% tested positive for illegal drugs, and 75.1% of women did (Table 317). Among the male arrestees, 42.3% tested positive for marijuana, 38.3% tested positive for cocaine, and 6.8% tested positive for opiates; among female arrestees, 34.3% tested positive for marijuana, 52.5% for cocaine, and 6.1% for opiates (the subfigure for meth is not available). Some of this involves arrests for drug crimes themselves, but certainly, a large percentage do not. And, these figures don't even begin to capture alcoholism as a factor in crime.

About 47.2% of people newly sent to prison each year in Colorado have a severe or moderately severe substance abuse problem. Another 35.1% have a moderate substance abuse problem. Only 9.4% have no substance abuse problem. Female inmates are even more likely to have a moderate or severe substance abuse problem than male inmates: 87.4% of them need treatment for this reason.

Substance abuse that treats this root cause of crime prevents those who receive treatment from offending again.

[P]rison-based substance abuse treatment is effective – if combined with aftercare – and leads to major reductions in recidivism. For example, his 1999 study involving 478 prisoners at a state prison near San Diego, California found that after three years, only 27 percent of the prisoners involved the prison’s drug treatment program with aftercare returned to prison, compared to a recidivism rate of 75 percent for those not involved in the treatment program.

Another example of a successful prison based substance abuse program is found in Delaware:

A University of Delaware study of the DOC's drug treatment continuum found: Of those completing the continuum, 76 percent remained drug-free and 71 percent remained arrest free after 18 months. In a control group that did not receive the continuum, only 19 percent remained drug-free and 30 percent arrest-free after 18 months.

In short, drug addicted and alcholic prisoners are an accident waiting to happen, who are extremely likely to commit more crimes if their problems aren't addressed. As a public service ad on the radio these days reminds us, people under the influence of drugs may have trouble making good decisions about obeying the law.

Mental Health

Furthermore 19.9% of incoming prison inmates in Colorado have moderate or severe mental health problems, a number that doesn't perfectly overlap with those who have substance abuse problems. Among incoming female inmates, 29.8% have moderate or several mental health problems. About 91% of Colorado prison inmates are men, and about 95% of those serving time for violent crimes are men.

Providing services to mentally ill prisoners isn't a panecea, but itworks to reduce recidivism:

[C]lear evidence shows that Medicaid coverage reduces recidivism rates for mentally ill convicted felons. A Washington State program targeting dangerous mentally ill offenders for special follow up after release significantly reduced recidivism according to a 2005 study of the program.

This follows naturally from the reality that:

The combination of medication noncompliance and alcohol or substance abuse problems was significantly associated with serious violent acts in the community, after sociodemographic and clinical characteristics were controlled.

It isn't that the mentally ill are more likely to commit crimes again that is relevant, it is that because a key factor behind serious crimes commited by the mentally ill is well understood, there are concrete steps that can be taken to prevent is misstep from happening.

Lack of Education

While Colorado specific information on the education levels of prison inmates is hard to come by, nationally we know that:

In 1997, state prison inmates' educational levels were:

14.2% had an 8th grade education or less;
28.9% had some high school education;
25.1% had a GED;
18.5% were high school graduates;
10.7% had some college education; and
2.7% were college graduates or had advanced degrees.

About 70% of the adults in Colorado overall are high school graduates.

There is no reason to think that Colorado is significantly atypical.

Educating prisoners in no panecea, but it has been proven to reduce recidivism in those who undertake it (citations in original omitted):

The Three State Recidivism Study found that re-arrest, reconviction, and re-incarceration rates were lower for the prison population who had participated in correctional education than for non-participants. The differences were significant in every category. The study found:

the re-arrest rate of correctional education participants was 48%, compared to 57% for the non-participants;
re-conviction rate was 27% for correctional educational participants, compared to 35% for non-participants; and
re-incarceration rate was 21%, compared to 31% for non-participants. . . .

A study of recidivism rates conducted by the Virginia Department of Correctional Education found that:

of those who had no educational programming (1,037 persons) while incarcerated, 49.1% were reincarcerated in the Virginia Department of Corrections;
of those who enrolled in an academic program (469 persons) but did not complete it, 38.2% were reincarcerated; and
of those who completed an academic program (451), 19.1% were reincarcerated.

As another example: "[I]n Ohio, while the overall recidivism rate was 40 percent, the recidivism rate for inmates enrolled in the college program was 18 percent."

According to an article in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of Correctional Education by James S Vacca, there is widespread documented evidence in a large number of carefully done studies that prison education reduces recidivism.

This only makes sense. About 46% of people in prison in Colorado, and a far larger share of crimes committed and persons convicted of crimes but not sent to prison, are there for either property crimes or drug crimes. Both are economically motivated crimes, and an education makes alternative to this life of crime more workable.

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