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Colo. pilot program would give prisoners $3,000 in cash when released to reduce recidivism

The pilot program would use taxpayer money to provide cash assistance to people leaving Colorado prisons if they agree to participate in a workforce development program

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By Nick Coltrain
The Denver Post

DENVER — On Christmas Eve 2019, Heather Fitzsimmons was released from jail for another set of offenses stemming from her heroin addiction.

With a new dedication to sobriety and a stronger personal relationship with God to carry her, she said, she was determined to rebuild her life. But she lacked a place of her own and the car she needed to find a job. A heap of court fines hung over her head.

The leg up she needed came in the form of a $3,000 cash incentive, given to her by the nonprofit Center for Employment Opportunities. While the program provided workforce training, she was able to land an apartment in Aurora and a car for work and errands, all while taking a bite out of her fines — gaining, in a word, independence.

“It was a big relief and encouragement,” said Fitzsimmons, now 41 and sober, in an interview. “It was nice to be rewarded for doing good.”

The concept has caught the attention of state lawmakers, who are now pushing for a pilot program that would use taxpayer money to provide cash assistance to people leaving Colorado prisons, for basic living expenses, if they agree to participate in a workforce development program. It’s one of several bills under consideration by the Colorado legislature this session that would reshape how the state looks at recidivism and tries to prevent people from reoffending.

But the $3,000 cash grant program — the most attention-grabbing proposal — faced a skeptical Senate committee Monday afternoon, given its cost and general concept.

Sponsors delayed a formal vote on the bill to continue to work on it, averting a potential “no” vote that would have stopped it completely. It faces a steep climb to passage.

Sen. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat and key vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview that he would oppose the bill in its current form. He takes issue with both its $15 million-a-year price tag once it’s up and running as well as what he called a lack of accountability for taxpayer funds compared to other reentry programs.

Price tags so high have been enough to kill even broadly supported policies in the past, he said.

“I strongly believe there needs to be a level of accountability so the funds are being used for the goals listed in the bill,” Roberts said. “But the funds don’t come with any oversight at all.”

Proponents argue the cash assistance bill would help people get a roof over their heads and ease some of the financial pressures that could steer them back toward the same behaviors that landed them in the criminal justice system in the first place.

Right now, formerly incarcerated people receive $100 upon release. Valerie Greenhagen, a regional director for the nonprofit that helped Fitzsimmons, said the data was too preliminary to draw strong conclusions, but initial evidence showed that more significant cash assistance could reduce risks of rearrest by 30% or more.

“What we’ve been doing isn’t really working,” Greenhagen said in an interview. “It’s worth being innovative and trying something new.”

Examining recidivism and the state’s prevention efforts three other bills aim to answer the fundamental question of how to define recidivism, or the committing of new crimes by prior offenders; how the state should think about successful reentry into society after incarceration; and to study how people move through the criminal justice system.

Another bill proposes changing how ex-offenders can qualify for professional licenses to help them find economic stability and ease state workforce needs.

“The vast majority of people who are currently incarcerated will at some point return to their communities,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat. “And so how are we ensuring that we are setting those people up for productive and meaningful returns to society?”

Colorado faces a recidivism rate of 31% to 50%, depending on the year, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections, though that’s according to just one definition.

Senate Majority Leader Robert Rodriguez, a Denver Democrat, is sponsoring the bill that would establish a working group to define recidivism uniformly across state departments.

The DOC defines recidivism as when an ex-offender goes back to prison, while the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice defines it as when the person has any new court filings, Rodriguez said. And then there’s recidivism due to technical violations of parole or probation — versus recidivism due to the person committing new crimes in their community.

“What better way to strike fear into people’s hearts than to not have clear data,” Gonzales said during a floor debate on the bill, which she is also sponsoring.

That bill, SB24-030, and SB24-029, which would create a working group to examine the metrics for criminal justice success, both passed the Senate on party-line votes Monday morning and now head to the House for consideration.

Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican and the Senate minority leader, was critical of the bill to define recidivism during the floor debate.

“You don’t define away crime,” he said. “That is my concern, that this bill could have that impact.”

Those bills emerged from an interim legislative study committee on recidivism.

“We have to believe in redemption”Fighting recidivism is multifaceted and ultimately is a community safety concern, said Larimer County District Attorney Gordon McLaughlin , who served on the interim committee on behalf of the Colorado District Attorney’s Council. Speaking in his individual capacity, he said that nailing down common definitions and establishing metrics to measure success could can help policymakers meet that goal.

When it comes to cash assistance bill, Roberts said there was a valid public policy interest in trying to lower recidivism rates. He wants people who’ve paid their debts to society to continue with their lives, he said, but such a program would need oversight. He said he would keep an open mind when considering any amendments to the bill.

But Sen. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat who’s a bill sponsor, sees the proposed cash assistance as money well spent. A year in prison costs the state $50,000, he said. Spending $3,000 to try and keep someone out of a cell and in the workforce is just pragmatic math, he said — not to mention more humane.

“If a person does a crime, they’ve got to do the time. We’re not saying anything about that,” Coleman said. “But we have to believe in redemption.”

Fitzsimmons, for one, hopes lawmakers find a way to adopt the program. She’s confident that even without the nonprofit program helping her in 2020, her faith and determination would have landed her in the place she is today — working full time during the week and hiking on weekends.

But it might have taken another year, or longer, to find stability, she said. A lot can happen in a year for someone trying to break a cycle of incarceration.

“A year is a long time to give up hope,” Fitzsimmons said. “You’ve got to celebrate the wins, even the small wins. Because life is discouraging, and life is tough, especially coming out of prison.”

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