Colorado’s crime wave requires a more sober analysis and a bit of myth busting

Pundits across Colorado have begun pushing their pro-incarceration agenda using misleading statistics to exploit our fear of crime for political purposes while trying to drive a wedge in our communities.

With elections coming up, the political motivations are clear. They blame declining incarceration and justice reform policies for causing a “Colorado crime wave.”  While crime has increased in Colorado, and across many other states as well, the pundits are wrong about both the causes and the solutions.

If more incarceration makes us safer, why isn’t the U.S. the safest country in the world? We imprison four to six times more people per capita than almost any other country, even dictatorships like China and Russia.

As an elected official, I am acutely aware that public safety is my primary responsibility. As a lawyer, community non-profit board member, and restorative justice volunteer, I have seen the impact of crime on victims and their families. My heart goes out to them.

As a legislator, my responsibility is to study, analyze and seek to understand complex societal problems and to formulate targeted, responsive and evidence-based policy solutions. Rarely have I found such problems linked to a single cause. As journalist H.L. Mencken famously said, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple and wrong.”

It is notable that most criminal justice reform policies have received significant bipartisan support in the Colorado legislature, including measures requiring counsel at first court appearances, eliminating cash bond for petty offenses, requiring bond hearing within 48 hours and prompt release following bail, misdemeanor sentencing reform and the major law enforcement transparency and accountability measure, which passed the Senate almost unanimously. It is also notable that the major contributors to declining incarceration in Colorado were county Sheriff’s and Department of Corrections policies enacted to enhance safety in congregate care facilities in response to COVID-19, not to legislative enactments.

Nevertheless, the pundits and their allies cite a cavalcade of statistics in an attempt to link rising crime and falling incarceration rates with justice reform. While they conclude, without evidence, that there is an inextricable connection, they ignore other factors that might be worthy of consideration as we look for the contributors to violence and increased crime; homelessness up 9%, first-time homelessness up 100%, gun sales up 43%, overdose deaths up 32%. There is also potentially a correlation with crime arising out of increased social isolation related to COVID-19, deteriorating mental health, substance use disorder and the despair and insecurity arising from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

The closing of local institutions like schools, churches, synagogues, neighborhood centers, community-based organizations and local programs that had served as community resources has left a void that could also have contributed to crime. Some also cite Colorado’s underfunding K-12 schools, nationally last-place ranking in teacher’s pay per cost-of-living, and suspension/expulsion policies as failing to provide educational opportunities and pathways out of poverty.

A Colorado newspaper collaborative just completed a multi-part series investigating mental health in Colorado. They reported we have the highest rate of mental illness and lowest access to care in the country, and that our system is broken, serving thousands fewer patients now than before the pandemic while turning away the most vulnerable leaving them with no place to go. Colorado Department of Corrections Director Dean Williams says the prison system is the largest institution housing folks struggling with their mental health in the state. Is lack of treatment for behavioral health a contributor to crime — or is rising crime solely attributable to criminal justice reform and too little incarceration as urged by some?

With the notable exception of some Colorado prosecutors and law enforcement, there is broad agreement that mass incarceration has been a huge mistake. Our draconian and mandatory sentences are unjustly severe, ineffective at preventing crime and costing taxpayers millions. DOC’s budget has exploded 1,288% over thirty-five years and now is almost a billion dollars. At the same time, DOC has been notably unsuccessful in correcting or rehabilitating; fully half of the people released from prison are reincarcerated within three years of release.

What I learned at the Wharton Business School is that if your business model is unsuccessful 50% of the time, you should change that model. Mass incarceration is not the solution. I suggest we strive to be smart, nuanced and targeted rather than doubling down on failed policies that simply haven’t worked.

With that in mind, I look forward to working with advocates and colleagues on both sides of the aisle to look at the data, determine the actual causes of crime, and equally importantly, to join them in implementing preventive, deterrence strategies and criminal justice policies that are victim-focused, promote offender accountability, and ensure that our jails are reserved for dangerous, violent and repeat offenders.

I have a holistic vision of public safety in which thriving communities have fully funded schools, robust public services, affordable housing, healthcare and racial, social and economic justice for all. We have a lot of work to do during the 2022 legislative session.

Pete Lee is a Colorado state senator from Colorado Springs.

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