31 January 2007

Gangs in Colorado Prisons

The debate over the every growing corrections budget in Colorado, we have about 22,000 people in prison in the state and it is growing by 1,000 people a year or so indefinitely into the future. Recidivism, approaching 50%, is a key component of the problem.

Many of the issues involved in cutting it are familiar and came out at a legislative hearing at which Ari Zavaras, the Ritter administration's new head of the Department of Corrections, testified.

Funding for mental health, drug and alcohol and sex offender treatment was slashed during the Owen's administration, despite the fact that these programs are proven to reduce recidivism. Equally of concern was the lack of incentives to get skills training and classes. The parole system isn't effectively encouraging inmates to leave prison and get straight, and many are returning to prison for technical violations that cost the public a bundle.

The remarkable statistic provided by Zavaras (as reported in the Denver Daily News) was one about gangs that I'd not heard before. According to the DOC, there were 5,056 gang members in Colorado prisons in 2000 and there were 8,373 in 2006. Thus, the Department of Corrections believes that almost 40% of inmates in Colorado prisons are gang members.

While it isn't surprising to hear that there are gang members in Colorado prisons, these numbers are stunningly high, and moreover, suggest a different cause for recidivism and suggest different approaches to dealing with it, than have been suggested in the past. In the case of an isolated criminal, dealing with the individual issues that push that person to commit a crime is a sensible policy. In the case of a criminal gang, the solution has to isolate the offender from the gang or smash the gang itself.

This also suggests a different approach to law enforcement, against oriented towards the epic struggles between gangs and towards shutting the gangs themselves down.

I'm skeptical, because law enforcement often exaggerates the extent of gang activity, but this figure signals a need for much more attention to the issue.

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