Don't tell state Rep. Pete Lee he might be soft on crime, just because he's driven a truckload of legislation to keep people out from behind bars the past seven years.
The Colorado Springs Democrat gives a gentle snort to the suggestion of soft.
"Restorative justice programs are not soft on crime," he said of the personal-accountability programs he's almost single-handedly written into state laws since he joined the General Assembly in 2010.
"Ask someone who has had to sit across from a victim and say they're sorry and explain why they did it. That's very hard for these young people to do. Ask them if I'm soft on crime."
You could more easily say Lee is smart on crime.
The youthful 69-year-old is a graduate of the Wharton School of Finance. He started his legal career in criminal defense before becoming a corporate counsel, the a lawmaker.
He's watched the criminal justice system grind up people and tax dollars in Colorado since the mid-1980s.
High cost of incarceration
Lee, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said it costs taxpayers $40,000 a year to house a prisoner, and most will return at least once and some several times.
Programs to keep people out of jail cost a fraction of paying for every facet a person's life behind bars, Lee said.
The 1980s was the tough-on-crime generation. In 1985, the Colorado legislature doubled the maximum sentence for most felonies, along with some other state and federal sentencing enhancements, especially for drug charges.
According to the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the average prison stay grew from 20 months in 1980 to 57 months in the taxpayers' hotel in 1989.
Then, the state prison population was about 4,000. This year it's nearly 20,000.
And most inmates came out worse, not better, for the experience, Lee said. Taxpayers and future crime victims weren't better off, either.
"How effective has 'tough on crime' really been?" Lee said Friday evening. "It's the most inefficient system I've seen."
More in the works
Lee received preliminary approval on four bills Friday that House Democrats say could help shape Colorado's criminal justice system into a national model.
One, House Bill 1329, is strengthened by the reporting by Debbie Kelley and Megan Schrader of the Colorado Springs Gazette on the rough physical treatment of children in the state youth corrections system.
The bill would change the name of Youth Corrections to Youth Services. It would allow gifts, grants and donations to pay for programs than reduce physical manhandling and restraints on those in custody and cut down on the number who return or graduate to prison.
The state Department of Corrections is expected to cost $846.8 million next year. In 1987 it cost $63 million.
Another piece of Lee legislation is aimed at the roots of crime.
House Bill 1326 would cut the amount of jail time for those who commit only technical parole violations in non-violent cases and steer the savings into the community programs that could get the roots of crime - poverty, joblessness, drugs, mental health and education.
The bill creates a pilot program for community organizations in north Aurora and southeast Colorado Springs.
Also on Friday, Lee received tough-to-get approval from the 18 lawmakers on the Legislative Council to create a Comprehensive Sentencing Reform Committee.
The committee of eight legislators, which will surely include Lee, will meet between this year's session and next year. It could recommend up to five bills next year, which would be Lee's last remaining year in the House before term limits forces him out.
"We spend so much money locking people up that could be better spent on things that might prevent them from needing to be locked up," Lee said. "It just seems smarter and more efficient to me to get out in front of it."
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