Education

Colorado bill would incentivize degrees to get a lower prison sentence

If this bill passes, Colorado's non-violent offenders could get an early release by getting a higher education degree.

Colorado bill would incentivize degrees to get a lower prison sentence
Scripps News

Colorado legislators are working to pass a bill that would grant early release to non-violent offenders who pursue an accredited higher education.

It puts more of an impact on education, which isn't lost on Alyssa Kurtz. She was incarcerated for possession and distribution of controlled substances back in 2010.

"I was a single mom with a baby, and I was like, 'Well, I have to work, and I have to put my kid in daycare,'" Kurtz said. "And so I started doing other things that seemed like fast money and easier or less time-consuming."

At first, Kurtz said she felt hopeless behind bars.

"It kind of feels like the end of the world," Kurtz said.

But several months into her sentence, she says she met somebody who was pursuing higher education while incarcerated.

"She was like, 'Yeah, I take college classes through correspondence,' and so that really makes me feel like I can do something productive and gives me hope that I have some kind of future beyond this, even with this huge sentence," Kurtz said.

Kurtz then started classes, and by the time she was released, she said she was three classes away from having her associate degree. Since then, she has accomplished everything that was on her list.

"I have had another baby," Kurtz said. "I finished my bachelor's degree in June, and I own a home. And I have a vehicle that has a warranty. I have custody of all my kids. I have two jobs, and I know a handful of people who are in similar situations."

Kurtz says she owes her success to her education, the hope it gave her, and the family support she had upon being released.

With HB23-1037, introduced by Colorado Democratic Rep. Matthew Martinez, Kurtz would have been released early for pursuing high education. The bill would grant anywhere from six months to a year-and-a-half off a non-violent offender's sentence when they complete an accredited higher education program.

"We've heard that the phrase all the time: 'You do the crime, you do the time,'" Martinez said. "Well, what happens after they do the time?"

Martinez stresses the bill would only apply to non-violent cases, like that of Kurtz.

"What we're talking about here is to is not your murderers, not your rapists," Martinez said. "It might be people that are in there for burglary. They may be in there for drug crimes. But, you know, this is all stuff that can be rehabilitated by programs like this."

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Martinez says he modeled the bill off of one from California, which he says grants six months off a sentence for any degree earned. But he says he hopes all states across the U.S. will want to replicate his bill after seeing the decrease he expects in recidivism rates as more incarcerated people pursue higher education.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona says there's data to support the impact education can have on recidivism rates, which, in turn, can have a positive impact on everyday Americans.

"I had a conversation at a visit to an institution where someone that was incarcerated told me, 'Look, we need skills so that we don't go back to some of the habits that we had that got us in here in the first place,' so this makes a lot of sense" Cardona said. "We know it reduces recidivism by 48% — which, think about the savings there for taxpayers if, you know, 48% of people are not going back in."

The U.S. Department of Education has already been working to expand education access to incarcerated individuals through its Second Chance Pell Experiment, which grants federal financial aid to incarcerated students in prison.

"There's a good return on investment here," Cardona said. "For every dollar spent here, we're saving taxpayers $4 to $5 by not having to incarcerate individuals. It costs less to educate than it does to incarcerate."

But it's not just about saving money; legislation like this needs to be handled with care, according to Kent Scheidegger. He's the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, an organization he says was created to protect the rights of victims of crime and the law-abiding public.

Scheidegger said he likes how the proposed Colorado legislation would only offer early release to non-violent offenders, but he thinks it's important to define what is considered non-violent.

"A short list of offenses that are considered violent and everything else is non-violent is usually not sufficient because there are things that people don't think of that end up being omitted that are unquestionably violent," Scheidegger said. "Assaults, for example, may not fit any of the specific definitions."

He also warns against offering too much time off of a person's sentence. He says victims of crime may not feel like justice is served.

"I would say a cap of no more than one-half total for any offender is a good idea," Scheidegger said.

Nonetheless, he says there is some value in an incentive for higher education.

"We certainly do want people to become honest and self-supporting citizens after they leave prison," Scheidegger said.

Cardona says this type of legislation can open these people to a purpose and a way to contribute positively to society. And although Kurtz has put her incarcerated life behind her, she agrees with the sentiment of how an education can change the future of those behind bars.

"There's kind of two ways that people go," Kurtz said. "There's like, 'Everything is screwed and there's no hope, so it doesn't matter what I do,' and there's people who are like, 'You know, if I try hard enough, I'm going to put something together out of this and make good use of this time and make it productive.' And given the opportunity to do something productive, a lot of people will do it."

Martinez says the bill is expected to be signed into law by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis in the next couple of weeks.

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