Public safety, a core function of government

This week, I want to report to you on the work of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ).

I’m one of a few legislator members on this commission and we’ve been meeting for over a year now. The commission was set up by legislation in 2007, the first year that I served in the legislature.

If you’d like to review the bill that set up the commission and the stated purposes of it, you can find it on the Colorado legislature’s Web site, which is www.leg.state.co.us and click on the link to prior session information. The bill number is HB 07-1358.

Today, the costs of incarceration and with criminal reoffending have climbed to $713 per Colorado household, up from $371 in 1982, with figures adjusted for inflation. Another number to consider is that 98 percent of those put in prison return out to our communities. Warehousing prisoners without a focus on offender rehabilitation may be shortsighted in a number of ways.

At a time when our budget shortfall for this year alone is over $600 million, we’re looking to see where money can be cut from state expenses. The question that faces all legislators, and this commission, is, what kind of return is Colorado getting on the money it spends on the criminal justice system and are there ways we can get more value out of each dollar spent there.

This last Friday, the commission met for its regular monthly meeting. On Fridays, the legislature usually adjourns around noon so that the members can travel home to their districts. When the commission has its meetings, though, I stay in Denver, because our meetings go through the entire afternoon. The meetings are so filled with information that I get more out of them by attending in person than by phone.

The commission is chaired by Peter Weir, a former district attorney and judge, who is currently the head of the Colorado Department of Public Safety. Director Weir runs an efficient and action packed meeting while allowing enough room for an exchange of ideas among the Commission members. This is one of the most “value added” meetings I regularly attend.

The exchange at these meetings often is lively and sometimes quite heated, given that the membership of the commission is made up of district attorneys, criminal defense attorneys, the heads of many state agencies such as corrections, human services, the adult and juvenile parole boards and the attorney general. Also represented on the commission is higher education, victims, police chiefs, county commissioners, mental health treatment providers, sheriffs and legislators.

The first annual report for the commission was published in December 2008, and is filled with lots of information, data and initial recommendations of the commission. You can find it online at cdpsweb.state.co/ccjj. If you have an interest in Colorado’s budget and the criminal justice system, I highly recommend you take a look at the report. If you don’t use the Internet, if you’ll let me know, I’ll try to get a copy of the report to your local library, so you can read it there.

In the future, I and other members of the commission will be making ourselves available for town hall meetings and public speaking to interested groups. If you belong to an organization that might want to hear more on these topics, please let me know.

I believe that public safety is one of the core functions of government and that Colorado must spend some of its limited resources in this area. If you disagree with that basic premise, let me know. The challenge then becomes defining, as a state, what is public safety, how much are we willing to spend on it and where do we spend that money most effectively. I hope the people, especially those in my district, will get involved in this important conversation with the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Commission.