Colorado's prison population is forecast to hit nearly 21,000 inmates by June of 2020 — about 800 more than are currently incarcerated and raising questions about the state's prison capacity.
That's the forecast that state lawmakers were given last week by Legislative Council, the analysts and lawyers who do research for the General Assembly.
There was good news in the report— such as a prediction that state revenues would grow by an additional $1.2 billion this year — but there were also hard facts, such as the report on the Department of Corrections.
Just last September, the important Joint Budget Committee agreed to recommend that lawmakers spend $1 million this year to remodel and reopen Centennial South, the 950-bed maximum security prison that has been closed since 2012 after just two years of operations.
That prison lacks some essentials, such as recreation areas, that would allow it to open for a general population.
But only a year ago, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers rejected a request from the Department of Corrections to prepare for a bigger prison population by reopening Centennial South and leasing at least 250 beds in the Huerfano County Correctional Facility outside Walsenburg.
At that time, both Democrats and Republican critics said the DOC was not doing enough to put inmates into community corrections or conduct parole hearings. They rejected the DOC request for more beds in May, only to have the JBC reconsider that in September and recommend that at least Centennial South be reopened this year.
Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, has been lobbying his colleagues for two years to reopen all or portions of the 750-bed Huerfano facility, which was built as a private prison.
"The reality is we need the space. The figures have been saying that for some time now," he said Monday. "It's a matter of public safety for the staff and people in our prisons."
The Legislative Council report said one sign that the growth in inmates may slow is that the growth in the number of felony criminal cases is slowing down. That caseload grew by more than 5 percent last year, down from 12 percent in 2016.
The report predicts filings will grow by less than 5 percent this year.
Lawmakers did pass a short list of policy changes last year to require that more prisoners be shifted into community corrections when the prison vacancy rate falls below 2 percent. Also, more prisoners are reviewed for parole.
Those measures have released some pressure on the growing inmate population. The report said discretionary releases from DOC were up by 11 percent over one year ago.