Anatomy of a BillColorado

Colorado’s Criminal Justice Reform Bill Expands Rehabilitation Opportunities Through Higher Education

March 21, 2024

By Pamela Goldsmith

Too many prisoners in Colorado were returning to correctional facilities following parole, so State Representative Matthew Martinez hatched a plan to remedy the problem. Martinez introduced and steered the advancement of CO HB23-1037, proposing a system that reduces sentences for incarcerated individuals who complete college degrees through prison education programs.

A brainchild of Martinez’s tenure as Director of Adams State University’s Prison College Program, the legislation emerged as a response to Colorado’s alarming recidivism rates. According to data from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, offenders who serve their maximum sentences and are released on mandatory parole are 50% to 60% likely to return to prison within three years.

Inspired by the precedent set by California’s Proposition 57, which grants commensurate earned time credits for degrees attained through prison education, Martinez recognized the value in replicating California’s system, tailoring it to address Colorado’s challenges by implementing a tiered earned time credit system. 

“It’s an important bill,” remarked Martinez. “This [legislation] will help to get people on the right track and restore families that are devastated by family members being in prison.”

Prop. 57 was forged to provide a fresh avenue for state officials to mitigate the ramifications of California’s sentencing laws, fostering the expedited release of individuals deemed eligible, with a focus on rehabilitation, public safety, and judicious utilization of finite public resources. It fell upon Martinez and his co-sponsors to prove HB23-1037 could achieve analogous outcomes.

With a focus on building alliances through collaboration, Martinez engaged a spectrum of stakeholders from the state House and Senate, Adams State University, Colorado’s Department of Corrections, and the District Attorneys’ Council. What began as a nascent vision gradually evolved into a comprehensive incentive program aimed at fostering rehabilitation and curtailing recidivism.

Sen. Julie Gonzalez (CO – D) emerged as a pivotal figure in advancing the bill, orchestrating meetings with educators at Adams State University and subsequently convening lawmakers and stakeholders in Denver. Using data and insights derived from the university, Gonzalez and Martinez shared success rates from the Adams State Prison College Program which supported findings reported in RAND and Emory’s studies showing that out of fifty-one graduates who had been released, Adams State had only two students who recidivated. 

Fact-based information showed reducing the time non-violent offenders spend in prison or on parole to earn college degrees or certificates would result in considerable cost savings for the Department of Corrections. Martinez ensured the bill specified that 50% of such savings remain with the DOC, while the residual 50% is allocated to higher education institutions that offer accredited correctional facilities programs. The bill further requires that the general assembly annually appropriate these savings incurred during the prior state fiscal year.

The crafting of HB23-1037, according to Martinez, lay in the exchange of ideas and meticulous deliberation. Recognizing the shortcomings of Proposition 57, Martinez credits the District Attorneys’ Council for advocating the tiered earned time credit model integrated into the final bill, which adjusts the sentence reduction based on the level of education attained — six months for a certificate, one year for a bachelor’s degree, eighteen months for a master’s, and two years for a Ph.D.

Martinez’s dedication to adapting diverse perspectives and integrating empirical research into the policy-making process proved decisive. He says collaboration and bipartisanship were crucial in molding the bill to address concerns across party lines. 

“The way I advanced this bill into law was based on in-depth discussions and being able to have evidence-based data ready and saying, ‘Hey, this is how impactful this program can be if we do this right and we set it up right here in the state,'” said Martinez.

Challenges arose during the bill’s evolution, with technical hurdles necessitating adept navigation. Martinez was asked how they can ensure “the funding doesn’t become a feeding frenzy of money for new schools attempting to enter the program?” Language was incorporated permitting the Department of Corrections to keep the program in check and maintain control. 

“We needed to make sure schools were being intentional, so the bill does not create a money pot,” said Martinez.

Concerns voiced by the District Attorneys regarding such potential abuses prompted amendments, with the insertion of a tiered system mitigating apprehensions. An added provision to parole probation for reduced time provided a further incentive for individuals in the program to complete their intended credential.

Martinez underscored the significance of garnering bipartisan support, reaching out to Minority Leader, Rep. Rose Pugliese (CO – R) to cosponsor the bill. Pugliese lauded the bill as a vital instrument in steering individuals toward a more constructive path, emphasizing the importance of providing support to mitigate recidivism.

“The educational component to me, at least as a conservative, supported the premise that it’s important that we give people a hand up, so they won’t continue to be in the system,” said Pugliese. “We should provide people the support they need to start over — because everybody makes mistakes.”

Based on Martinez’s evidence-based assessment of the system, Pugliese says she provided her caucus with information demonstrating the bill’s cost saving component by “reducing the number of incarcerated individuals who would gain the opportunity to give back to society in a different way.” 

Pugliese remarked, “I helped them understand, this is a better overall picture for Colorado and its future.”

Alliances created via bipartisanship facilitated the incorporation of fair funding stipulations into the bill to minimize moral hazard, place caps on the number of approved university providers to ensure the quality of educational services, and clear evaluation procedures for the program’s post-enactment years. These provisions, which were a product of diverse perspectives across both sides of the aisle, culminated in a feasible bill that not only passed legislative hurdles but promised tangible benefits for Colorado’s correctional system and incarcerated population. 

The bill was signed into law April 12, 2023.

Martinez envisions HB23-1037 as a stepping stone, with plans for future expansions contingent upon data-driven assessments of its efficacy. 

“This is only step one,” asserted Martinez. “We want to give this a few years for students to be able to get through the pipeline and then be able to conduct a state study.”

Martinez met with co-chairs, Rep. Mary-Katherine Stone (D-VT) and Rep. Casey Toof (R-VT) of the Vermont Future Caucus early this year, providing insights on creating a similar bill after caucus members learned about the success of Colorado’s HB23-1037. Vermont’s legislation, H.836 was introduced January 23, 2024 to the state’s Committee on Corrections and Institutions after being sponsored by fifteen members of its Caucus. 

Rep. Sara Jacobs


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