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ACLU of Colorado Releases Blueprint for Reducing Incarceration by 50 Percent

DENVER — The ACLU of Colorado today released a report that outlines how Colorado can cut incarceration in half and save more than $675 million by 2025 by pursuing reforms to its drug policy, parole and prosecutorial practices, and sentencing laws.

The Blueprint for Smart Justice includes an analysis of who is being sent to jail and prison in Colorado and the racial disparities that are present, what drives people into the system, how long people spend behind bars, and why people are imprisoned for so long. It offers a calculation of the impact of several criminal justice reforms by 2025 on racial disparities in the prison population, fiscal costs, and progress towards a goal of 50% reduction in overall incarceration.

Among the findings in the Blueprint for Smart Justice report:

  • The Colorado prison population increased by 661% between 1980 and 2016 and is projected to increase by 38% more by 2024.
  • Colorado has seen significant recent growth in the number of criminal cases filed by prosecutors in District Court – nearly 50% over five years.
  • The top offense for prison admissions in 2016 was drug possession. Drug offenses alone accounted for 1 in every 7 admissions.
  • Colorado ranked 9th in the country for the rate of Black people imprisoned and 4th in the country for the rate of Latinx people imprisoned in 2014.
  • There was a 579% increase in general fund spending on corrections between 1985 and 2016.

“Colorado imprisons far too many people for far too long at a cost to taxpayers of nearly a billion dollars a year. It is a moral and fiscal crisis in our state,” said ACLU of Colorado Public Policy Director Denise Maes. “The Blueprint for Smart Justice presents a path forward for lawmakers, judges, and prosecutors to address both the sheer number of people locked up in our state and the stark racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”

The ACLU of Colorado report is part of the ACLU’s Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints project, a comprehensive, state-by-state analysis of how states can transform their criminal justice system and cut incarceration in half.

The findings in this report bolster those of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) March 2018 report taking aim at a looming $1 billion dollar prison budget for Colorado. The CCJRC report finds that Colorado experienced a 106% increase in drug felony case filings in 2017 compared to 2012, and that 75% of these filings were for drug possession. Also, in a one-year period from 2015 to 2016, Colorado saw a 17% increase in the number of individuals sentenced for drug possession, which includes a 24% increase among women.

“The war on drugs continues to play an outsized role in fueling Colorado’s prison population and, in turn, its prison budget,” said CCJRC Executive Director Christie Donner. “No one thinks the status quo is stemming the flow of either illegal drugs or drug addiction, and yet it persists and is getting worse, particularly for women.

“Colorado does not need more prisons,” Donner said. “It needs a more sensible drug policy that treats drug use as a public health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.”

The Blueprints for Smart Justice are viewable on an interactive website that allows users to visualize the reductions in jail and prison population that would result from the policy decisions that states pursue. The interactive feature is viewable here:

The Colorado report is available here:

The website and the reports were created by utilizing a forecasting tool developed by the Urban Institute, which can be viewed here:

The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice is an unprecedented, multi-year effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50% and to combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system. We are working in all 50 states for reforms to usher in a new era of justice in America. The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice is fighting in the legislatures, the courts, and in the streets to end mass incarceration.

For more information about the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice:


The ACLU of Colorado is the state’s oldest civil rights organization, protecting and defending the civil rights of all Coloradans through litigation, education and advocacy.

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