Groundbreaking effort reconsiders safety from the ground up
Almost exactly two years ago, the Colorado legislature and then-Gov. John Hickenlooper took a bold step by creating a multimillion-dollar pilot program designed to reduce crime from the ground up.
Called the Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention Initiative — but colloquially known as Transforming Safety — the project taps $4 million in annual savings from the state parole fund to finance $1 million in low-interest, small-business loans and $3 million in grants for nonprofits, schools and local governments. The catch is those dollars are reserved for people working at the grassroots level to slow the prison pipeline in the pilot communities.
The dollars are currently being invested in Southeast Colorado Springs and North Aurora.
The plan was drafted by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and championed in the Legislature by a bipartisan team spearheaded by then-state Rep. Pete Lee (D-Colorado Springs), Sen. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs) and Sen. Daniel Kagan (D-Aurora/Arapahoe County). It got a boost from the co-sponsorship of Aurora and Colorado Springs lawmakers, including Southeast Rep. Tony Exum (D-Colorado Springs) and Sen. Mike Merrifield (D-Colorado Springs).
Its aim is to stem the state’s prison pipeline by investing in new approaches to public safety; specifically, in local initiatives that strengthen communities by halting crime before it happens.
Hickenlooper signed the bill on June 6, 2017. The first round of grants was distributed a year later, with a second set awarded on Nov. 20. The next round of grants is expected to be announced by the end of June.
The program was originally slated to sunset in 2020, but a three-year extension passed the Legislature this year and earned Gov. Jared Polis’ signature May 14 during a signing ceremony at Centennial Elementary School. Centennial is one of the direct beneficiaries of the grant funding, since it partnered with the Colorado Springs Conservatory Foundation on a project to promote arts education.
“Transforming Safety, I can say without much reservation or hesitation, is the most creative and intriguing and potentially impactful bill that I have sponsored in the Legislature,” Lee, now a state senator, said. “Justice reinvestment as a concept is, you take money out of one part of the criminal justice system where it’s not being effectively utilized and move it to a different part of the criminal justice system where it can be effectively utilized.
“Rather than putting money into (ineffective) programs, let’s find out what’s causing crime in the community and address the causative factors.”
We just stepped back and asked ourselves, ‘what would different look like?’ — Christie Donner, Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition
EYE FOR REFORM
Christie Donner has been advocating for changes in the criminal justice system for decades. As the executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, she knows all too well the reality of recidivism rates, prison overcrowding and the inherent social and racial bias built into a billion-dollar prison system that is geared more toward retribution than rehabilitation.
Her Denver-based coalition originally wrote the bill, then found lawmakers who were supportive of the proposal.
“We just stepped back and asked ourselves, ‘what would different look like?’” Donner said.
Colorado Division of Criminal Justice records show as many as 60 percent of mandatory parolees were back behind bars within three years. That number was from 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available, but was pretty consistent for the preceding decade.
In March 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released the results of a multi-year study following 25,431 offenders who were released from the federal prison system. It’s worth noting that most of the offenders tracked were sentenced for nonviolent offenses including drug trafficking, fraud, firearms trafficking, robbery, larceny and immigration.
The study found just shy of half of those released offenders (49.3 percent) were rearrested for a new crime or an alleged parole violation within eight years, and half of those were actually reincarcerated within two years of release.
The most common risk factors for recidivism among federal offenders were: age (offenders who were released prior to age 21 had the highest rearrest rate, while those over 60 had the lowest); race (African-Americans and Hispanic offenders had the highest rearrest rates at 59 and 41 percent, respectively); and education levels (offenders with less than a high school diploma were 10 percent more likely to reoffend than high school graduates, and 21 percent more likely to end up behind bars than those with at least some college).
To be clear, none of these findings is particularly new. But for Donner and her coalition, it’s all evidence that the current system doesn’t work.
“We’re not solving problems, we’re not improving the quality of life in our community from either a health or safety lens,” she said. “What do we need to do differently?”
TRANSFORMING THE APPROACH
The answer, she hopes, could come from Transforming Safety. The program is based on the theory that the individuals and organizations working on the front lines of a community best know how to reduce crime through prevention, restoration and education.
Part of the funding is earmarked for low-interest small business loans, administered locally by community development financial institution Accion. The loans are capped at $50,000 and five years, but can mean the difference between a new job in Southeast and stagnant growth.
“If a person is a hairdresser and she wants to put in another chair and employ somebody else, she could maybe get $5,000 in a low-interest, easy-term loan to … expand business, expand job opportunities,” Lee said.
On the grant-writing side, Transforming Safety mandated that local planning teams in each of the pilot communities meet to discuss the causes of crime and how best to stop it. In Southeast, the team consisted of law enforcement, community activists, business leaders, educators, members of the faith community and those working in rehabilitation, Lee said.
At the core of crime here, the planning team decided, are a lack of economic opportunities, trauma in the home and academic incompletion. The team then partnered with the state Department of Local Affairs, through which the funds are made available, and the Denver Community Foundation and the Springs-based Pikes Peak Community Foundation, the administers of the grants, to set up the framework that let local nonprofits submit their solutions.
More than 30 answered the call, said Patrick Horvath, the Denver Foundation’s deputy vice president of programs and director of economic opportunity. His organization not only awards the grants on the state’s behalf, but with the help of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, offers mentorship and advice to Transforming Safety partners to make their programs run more efficiently.
“We can help the people who are pulling groceries out of the backs of their cars to help the homeless,” he said.
COMMUNITY ON A MISSION
Each of the proposals for Southeast was reviewed by a selection committee comprised of local Southeast advocates and leaders, as another safeguard to make sure the funds were going to local work. Twenty-one local proposals received grants, for programs that do everything from enhancing arts education in underprivileged neighborhood schools to offering multilingual family education, violence prevention and parenting-skills programming.
The Trust for Public Land used its $60,000 grant to host a series of public meetings aimed at getting public input on the redesign of Panorama Park; while Solid Rock Community Development Corp. launched its Fresh Start Initiative this spring. That program, which got a $130,000 boost from Transforming Safety, teaches entrepreneurial skills to residents whose lives or families have been directly impacted by the prison system, including two recent cohorts taught inside Southern Colorado penitentiaries.
** Related content: Meet the Grantees**
“The Youth Transformation Center is working on conflict resolution with restorative justice in the elementary schools. How cool is that?” an enthusiastic Lee said.
“The Thrive Network and DenverWorks provide job opportunities for people. They train in entrepreneurship … people who are actually ex-offenders, who are now living in the community and who have a hard time getting jobs because of the collateral of their convictions.
“It’s really exciting to see the types of things that people are doing.”
Horvath said the group decided not to accept new applicants this year, but rather to award the next round of grants to the same organizations. They made that call so the projects already in the works have the funds they need to keep going, and the participating nonprofits have time to gather the hard numbers they need to prove their effect.
That’s also why Lee pushed the bill this year that extends the program through 2023.
Transforming Safety, I can say without much reservation or hesitation, is the most creative and intriguing and potentially impactful bill that I have sponsored in the Legislature. — State Sen. Pete Lee
‘REALLY BRING SOMETHING GOOD’
That sort of politicking is critical, but it wasn’t what interested Temesha Tucker, 14, or 13-year-old Sophia Roads. For the Southeast teens who live in the vicinity of Panorama Park, what matters is that someone is finally investing the time and effort to redevelop the 13.5-acre park that is now mostly just unimproved, sun-baked open space.
Both sit on a youth advisory board for the park and attended an April community engagement forum. For both Tucker and Roads, soccer fields were must-haves, although they also agreed a pool would be nice — even if it is logistically unattainable.
“I’m a child, so this will really help,” said Tucker, a gregarious Panorama Middle School student. “This park would really bring something good to the community, and … would really do something good to change people’s minds.”