Most prisoners in Colorado lived on the Front Range before they were imprisoned, a new report found Thursday, but a handful of rural and less-populated counties sent residents to prison at much higher rates than those seen in metro Denver.
About 65% of people in prison in April 2020 came from El Paso, Denver, Arapahoe, Jefferson and Adams counties, with the state’s largest cities — Denver, Colorado Springs and Aurora — sending the most residents to prison, according to a report from Prison Policy Initiative, a national nonprofit focused on criminal justice research.
Yet while most prisoners hailed from the Front Range, rural and less-populated counties led the state in incarceration rates, proportionately sending more of their residents to prison than metro counties, the report found.
“That’s pretty solid evidence that incarceration is not only a problem faced by cities, it’s affecting all parts of the state,” said Emily Widra, a senior research analyst at Prison Policy Initiative.
When the data was collected for the 2020 U.S. Census, 2,712 Denver residents were imprisoned, which, when considering the city’s population, translates to a rate of about 378 people imprisoned for every 100,000 people, according to the report, which used new data made available for the first time by the end of prison gerrymandering to trace prisoners’ last known home addresses. Colorado Springs and Aurora both had similar imprisonment rates in the 300s.
Some rural areas saw much higher rates. The city of Alamosa, in the San Luis Valley, had only 71 residents in prison, but that’s an imprisonment rate of about 719 people per 100,000 given the city’s population, the report found. The city of Pueblo had 684 residents in prison, a rate of about 612 people per 100,000. Those two counties saw the highest imprisonment rates in the state, followed by Bent, Logan and Moffat counties, the researchers found.
A variety of factors likely impact that difference between rural and urban areas, experts said, including poverty rates, access to services designed to keep people out of the criminal justice system, policing tactics and even the culture of a particular court or the approach of a particular prosecutor or judge.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado in 2017 found that one municipal judge in Alamosa issued twice as many arrest warrants as judges in similar municipal courts, routinely sending people to jail for failing to pay fines or for missing court for legitimate reasons, like hospitalization.
Taylor Pendergrass, director of advocacy and strategic alliances at the ACLU of Colorado, said that a single judge or prosecutor can have an “outsized impact” on the justice system in a rural area.
“The most important predictor of a county’s incarceration rate is generally the practices of the local county prosecutors,” he said. “It’s the prosecutor who decides what charges to bring, whether it is a misdemeanor or a felony, if it has a mandatory sentencing scheme. So the severity of charges they are bringing and the plea bargains they negotiate have an enormous impact on the people who are sentenced to jail or prison.”
In Pueblo County, which has the second-highest incarceration rate in the state, District Attorney Jeff Chostner said he intentionally seeks prison sentences for repeat offenders to try to keep them “off the streets.”
“I try to be a tough prosecutor and we try to handle crime as best we can down here,” he said Wednesday. “My main concern is when 70% of my homicides, officer-involved shootings and my drive-by shootings are committed by people out on some condition of bond, parole, probation. If we could just keep the people we have convicted in jail, if we could keep them there, three-quarters of my problems would go down in those areas.”
He added that he has also embraced programs aimed at reducing incarceration, like behavioral health court, veterans court, a post-incarceration program for drug offenders and a diversion program for juveniles. He said he was not surprised or “impressed one way or another” by the county’s high incarceration rates when compared to the rest of the state.
“We just try to do our job day in and day out and try to make Pueblo a safe community,” he said.
That’s a common attitude in the criminal justice system, said Christie Donner, executive director at the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and a co-author on the new report.
“There are not often really good feedback loops between the day-to-day operations that happen in courts all across the state and what the impact of those operations are… What is the impact? They don’t ask themselves those questions because is it outside the four corners of their day job,” she said, adding she hopes the report, which offers the most granular look to date at where Colorado’s prisoners lived prior to incarceration, will spark more local conversations.
In Denver and Aurora, the researchers looked at the particular neighborhoods where residents lived before they went to prison. The data reflects socioeconomic divides and long-standing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, Donner said.
“It’s always the same story,” she said. “It’s always the communities most impacted by mass incarceration are going to be low-income communities of color. And we could go back 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. This is not a new phenomenon.”
Denver’s Sun Valley neighborhood, a small and historically poor neighborhood largely made up of public housing that’s sandwiched between Interstate 25 and Federal Boulevard, had 25 former residents in prison in 2020 — a rate of about 2,170 per 100,000 people, the highest in the city.
The neighborhood, which had about 1,100 residents when the data was collected, has been in flux for several years as it undergoes redevelopment, with some residents forced to relocate and others returning into newly built public housing, said Jeanne Granville, president of the Sun Valley Community Coalition.
Many of the families who live in Sun Valley are people of color who face factors that make them more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system, like generational trauma and poverty, she said, though she added she was surprised by the high incarceration rate and said more research is needed to examine the sky-high number.
“It doesn’t reflect the Sun Valley I know and love,” she said, adding that imprisoned Sun Valley residents might not have committed their crimes in the neighborhood.
Where they lived
That’s an important note in the researchers’ data — it does not consider where prisoners were prosecuted and convicted, merely their last known home addresses.
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In Douglas County, which has one of the lowest rates of incarceration in the entire state at just 53 people per 100,000, most of the people arrested locally live elsewhere, like Denver, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said.
The county is one of the state’s most affluent and heavily populated, and it doesn’t host a major Front Range city. But it still experiences crime, Spurlock said.
“People will come down and steal the cars and they don’t live here,” he said. “They live in Denver. Then we catch them and then they go to prison and then it reflects back on Denver, which is not really accurate because they came down here to commit the crimes.”
Spurlock estimated that about 70% of the about 450 inmates currently in jail in Douglas County do not live in the county, and said that residents who are arrested typically face less serious charges that often do not lead to prison sentences.
“My jail is full, but it’s not full of people who live here,” Spurlock said. “It’s people who come here to commit crimes.”