The Colorado Catholic Conference urges the state legislature to pass SB21-146, “Improve Prison Release Outcomes,” sponsored by Sen. Pete Lee and Rep. Jennifer Bacon.

Criminal justice reform should be focused on rehabilitating persons convicted of crime, while also emphasizing penitence and redemption. We believe this bill is a step in the right direction toward that end.

SB 146 shifts the dynamic of Colorado’s criminal justice system from retribution to rehabilitation, particularly for those among the incarcerated who are elderly and vulnerable. Special needs parole exists to ensure that incarcerated individuals who pose little to no threat to society and suffer from burdensome health conditions are not kept in custody until they die. It promotes human dignity by offering an alternative to lifelong incarceration for those who are diagnosed with a serious impairment.

This has become especially pertinent during the pandemic. As COVID-19 spread in our prison system in 2020, the parole board of DOC saw an increase in the number of applicants for special needs parole from 53 to 118; however, only 16 of those were granted special needs parole[1]. This has rightly prompted a reexamination of the guidelines for the parole board set forth by the state legislature.

The Catholic Churches teaches the inherent dignity of every human being, including the vulnerable, elderly, terminally ill, and incarcerated. The Catholic approach rejects the idea of the criminal justice system as a merely punitive institution and encourages opportunities for reconciliation and redemption. For those facing chronic illness and considered not a threat to society, there should be an opportunity for special needs parole.

SB 146 also takes important steps to develop parole plans for formerly-incarcerated individuals and ensures that elderly parolees are enrolled in health insurance. Both policies will ensure that the individual is not left to fend for themselves following their release but is offered a plan and structure to help them reintegrate into society. This promotes the idea of restorative justice, giving individuals the resources to rebuild their lives post-incarceration.

Pope Francis has stated that the challenge of a criminal justice system is to ensure that “the measures taken against evil are not limited to suppressing, discouraging and isolating those who cause it, but instead help them to rehabilitate, to re-embark upon the path of good, to be authentic people who move on from their miseries to become merciful themselves.” SB 146 represents a step in solving this challenge and promoting rehabilitation in Colorado’s criminal justice system.

[1] Sherry, A. (2021, February 9). Advocates Call For Reform As ‘People Are Needlessly Dying In Prison’ During The Pandemic. Colorado Public Radio. https://www.cpr.org/2021/02/09/colorado-dept-of-corrections-special-needs-parole-reforms/.