The causes might be elusive, but the results are startling: Colorado's crime rates are soaring, rates that are topping the nation in some categories, notably its rise in property crimes and auto thefts.
The solutions might be just as nebulous, but two of the state's best-known former prosecutors touted a study they co-authored reflecting the state of public safety Thursday, and said criminal justice reformers in elected office and their policies aren't helping.
The average monthly crime rate in Colorado is 15% higher this year than in 2019, and a stunning 28% higher than it was a decade ago.
Colorado led the nation in its rates of increased property crimes and, separately, auto thefts in 2020, the numbers indicate.
The violent crime rate spiked 35% over the figure from 2011. Nationally, the increase was just 3%, according to a report by the Common Sense Institute released Thursday.
The report says:
- 70% of people arrested in Denver this year had prior arrests
- 30% of those had five or more priors, 54% of whom had multiple charges in the same year
- Use of personal recognizance bonds increased by 61% in the last three years
- Use of $1 and $2 bonds increased 1,879% in the last three years
- Since 2008, prison population decreased 23% (about 8,000 inmates), while crime rates have increased 47% (or about 131,399 crimes annually)
- Retail and motor vehicle thefts contributed cost between $1.2 and $1.6 billion, with each stolen vehicle averaging more than $36,000
- Colorado is in the top five states for its rate of recidivism
- The state saw the highest increase in the country in its property crime rate between 2011 and 2020
The full report is available here.
The authors of the report directly trace the steep climb in crimes to the state's criminal-friendly public policy.
"I think it's undeniable ," said George Brauchler, the former district attorney who prosecuted cases in southwest metro Denver area and the co-author of the new report, titled “The Colorado Crime Wave: An Economic Analysis of Crime and the Need for Data Driven Solutions,” with Democrat Mitch Morrissey, the former Denver DA.
"You can't turn on the TV, open up your phone or laptop or open the newspaper, if you still do that, without seeing an explosion of crime," he said.
Others eye the report's conclusions about causes with skepticism, arguing it didn't take into account several factors and newly enacted policies won't immediately show fruit.
The Common Sense Institute, the economy-oriented Denver think tank, collected sometimes hard-to-obtain data, according to the authors, on arrests and court records.
The pair worked with Chris Brown, the vice president of research and policy at the institute, who normally crunches data on taxing and spending.
Rising crime has a high price tag, the research shows: $27 billion in total, an amount equal to 77% of the state budget, which works out to an average cost of $4,762 a year for every Coloradan.
"There is a cost to this that is damaging to communities, that is damaging individuals, for businesses in the future for our state economy mainly. And so absolutely this is a business issue," Brown said in a Zoom call with Morrissey and Colorado Politics on Wednesday.
Brauchler puts the direct effect of rising crimes on Coloradans this way: "Coloradans stand a better chance of being a victim today than they were 10 years ago. That’s the takeaway here."
Morrissey said the crime numbers are back to the woeful days of the early 1990s, when law enforcement and lawmakers also made significant policy changes.
"We are at that stage now," he said Thursday. "We need to look at what's going on, what the trends are and the impact of new laws and try to adjust those things so Colorado isn't No. 1 in the situation we are in."
He told Colorado Politics Wednesday, "I think that it's a wake-up call to the citizens."
The costs aren't measured only in dollars, Morrissey told reporters in Thursday's briefing.
"How do you put a price tag for the increase we're seeing in violent crimes, victims who are losing family members, women who are sexually assaulted, children who are being assaulted sexually and those types of things?" he said. "How do you put a number on that?"
Morrissey said the report takes into account criminal justice, bond and parole reforms that he argues have loosened the jailhouse doors too much over the last decade.
He said cities, naming Denver and Grand Junction, started the movement of personal recognizance and low-cost bonds to avert incarceration. He cited people who committed more serious crimes, including murder, who were released on those bonds.
“I was startled by the numbers,” he told Colorado Politics. He saw the numbers climbing in homicides and other violent crimes when he left public office in 2017.
"... I was also startled to see some of the things that I felt were responsible for the increase in crime," he said.
The assumption that the numbers are tied to economic fallout of the pandemic isn't supported by the data, Morrissey said, adding, “That's why I think that this report is so important, because you can't write it off to the pandemic. These are trends that we've seen in our state now for a long time and to be No. 1 in certain crimes, it's just amazing to me."
Morrissey and Brown refuted the notion that prisoners must be released to relieve overcrowding in state prisons and local jails.
The Common Sense Institute found that between 2008 and this year, through June 30, population in the corrections system, including parolees and youth offenders, was down 23%, or more than 8,000 individuals, in the last 10 years. Department of Corrections prisons had 33% percent fewer inmates, or nearly 7,700 individuals.
The state's prison population peaked 12 years ago at 23,000, and most years it averages about 20,000. Partly because of COVID-19, the prison population fell to 15,760 last year, but legislative budget analysts warned in the spring it might rebound to about 17,000 by the end of the year.
As of Thursday, the state prison population stood at 15,844.
In 2018, the General Assembly heard projections that population could reach 25,000 by 2025, which prompted lawmakers to vote to reopen the decommissioned penitentiary at Centennial South in Cañon City to handle 632 offenders after closing of Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center in Colorado Springs.
Criminal justice and police reform have put statehouse Democrats at odds with law enforcement and prosecutors the last two sessions.
State Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs who has led the criminal justice reform movement at the Capitol and argued for restorative justice and other diversion measures, defended the policies he has championed.
Lee said the report looks at an outcome that has many causes, not just legislation, much of it so new it hasn’t had time to affect the dire numbers the DAs are using. He said it doesn’t consider the effects of domestic violence, which lawmakers have sought to curb in recent sessions, or the rise of anger because of social media, guns and other societal causes.
“The devil's in the details and, you know. There's a lot of reasons that crime may increase or decrease over time,” he said.
Lee said the “lock up everybody” mentality has a much longer track record of failing communities, victims and families.
“Some of the things we are doing don't work,” Lee said of the approach favored by law enforcement and prosecutors. “I mean, sending people to prison and then they come back, and three years later, half of them go back to prison. What kind of a system is that?
Brown and Morrissey said one response to the high crime is to invest stimulus dollars now into prevention programs, rather than continuing to turn loose potentially dangerous or larcenous people.
Lee agreed wholeheartedly that more money needs to be invested in deterrence instead of focusing on the fallout of crime. That’s why he and others have proposed changes in the first place, including his favored incarceration alternative: restorative justice to allow offenders to make amends, before they wind up in the criminal justice system.
“My gosh, I may have to rethink my positions if I'm lined up with Mitch Morrissey,” Lee joked with a laugh about his usual committee-hearing debater.
Deborah Richardson, ACLU of Colorado's executive director, said the uptick in crime is a cause for concern, especially in communities most often affected by violence, but it's time to focus on prevention methods proven to work over the long term in other places and not simply lock up more people.
"It would make Colorado less safe and be a grave mistake to double down on tough-on-crime practices that have caused intergenerational harm, financial loss and damage to Colorado’s families," she said.
Richardson said the report makes no mention of well-known causes of crime, including housing insecurity, job loss, opioid addiction and shuttering after-school programs — "all of which likely bear a far more direct relationship to the post-recession and pandemic-era rise in some crimes than recent criminal justice reforms."
She said the report also doesn't factor in the value of newly enacted reforms that help keep people on their jobs and take care of their families.
But Brauchler said the criminal-friendly changes in the law can't be ignored, arguing more criminals on the street equates to more crime.
"When you see one-third of inmates purged from the Department of Corrections system at the same time you see a 47% increase in crime in that same state, you'll have some people who will say, 'That's just correlation, that's not causation,'" Brauchler said. "That's nonsense. Those two numbers are either causation or it's coincidence, and I refuse to believe it's just coincidental that we've pushed people out of the prison system and into the surging crime rate."
Gov. Jared Polis wasn't available to comment on the new report and rising crime numbers, which are bound to be used against him in his reelection campaign next year.
The Governor's Office pointed to the investments in public safety Polis has called for in next year's state budget:
- $16.6 million to increase the public safety workforce with more access to mental health services, training and recruiting, as well as diversity to ensure officers reflect the communities they serve
- $35.9 million in community public safety investments, such as better street lighting, support for community watch programs and school safety programs, including improved mental health infrastructure
- $6 million for initiatives to prevent or respond to domestic violence
- $47.9 million for behavioral health workforce and programs, such as criminal deterrence efforts for at-risk people, including more beds at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan
- $7.1 million for recidivism reduction
- $6.8 million to boost the capabilities of the state forensics lab to better support local law enforcement
His spokesman, Conor Cahill, responded in an email Thursday afternoon.
"The governor appreciates any additional attention to fighting crime and hopes this new publicity helps pass his proposed investment in more and better policing and crime prevention," he said.
Cahil said public safety is "incredibly important" and Polis is "fighting for real solutions to address the pandemic induced rise in crime, including more and better policing and the governor’s plan to prevent crime from ever taking place through better drug treatment, mental health, youth violence prevention, and important new investments in funding for police officers."
He added: "Gov. Polis met with sheriffs and district attorneys from both parties across the state as he crafted and submitted a comprehensive plan to prevent crime and support law enforcement professionals.
In July, Polis signed six bills to change the way the state handles pre-trial detention, misdemeanors and second chances.
Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat, said Democrats prioritized improving criminal justice and law enforcement system. She sponsored three of the bills Polis signed into law.
“The laws we created will help us improve police-community relations and ensure our misdemeanor sentencing and pre-trial detention systems are more efficient and more fair for Coloradans," she said. "I’m proud of the work we did to advance the cause of justice.”
The Democratic-led General Assembly rejected Senate Bill 273, which would have barred arrest for some low-level crimes — traffic offenses, pretty drug possession and a list of municipal violations — and instead have police officers and sheriff’s deputies issue summonses, with exceptions for violence, guns and threats to schools or other institutions.
The bill died on a 6-5 vote in the House Finance Committee because two Democrats joined with the panel's four Republicans to vote it down. One was reliable Democrat Matt Gray of Broomfield, who is a former prosecutor.
"This is a bill about whether we put people in custody just because they can't afford to be out," Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Democrat from Adams County told the committee. She said when two people who commit the same low-level crime, the one with money to pay the bond gets out and the one who doesn't sits in jail.
"That's the system we've created," she continued. "Spending time in jail, even for a few days, impacts so much of individual's lives," including potentially losing their job, where they live or their children.
Fifteen of the state's 22 district attorneys opposed the bill, along with law enforcement.
Polis, however, signed Senate Bill 71 that would make it harder to lock up and set bond on juveniles who commit "a delinquent act."
The bill's aim is to reduce the juvenile detention bed count from 327 to 215 kids who could be held at any one time.