Colorado could pay $3,000 to thousands of people leaving prison — if they stick to the program

Andrew Kenney / CPR News
Demetrius Somerville was a recent recipient of a privately funded grant of $3,000 for people leaving incarceration. He spoke at the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in support of a measure to provide similar grants from public dollars for thousands more people leaving jail or prison.

Update: On Wednesday, Feb. 7, the sponsors of SB24-012 opted to pull their bill, in the face of opposition on a key committee. Read more here.

Under a proposed new law, many people leaving jail and prison in Colorado would get some extra help from the state government. They could receive up to $3,000 each in state funds to help with living expenses, as long as they stayed engaged for several months in development programs that are meant to help them get a job and stay out of the criminal justice system.

SB24-012 could create the largest program of its kind in the country, spending millions of dollars to support thousands of people over two years.

“It would put us at the top, as the leaders in this,” said Valerie Greenhagen, regional director of the nonprofit Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a nonprofit that provides support for people leaving incarceration.

But the measure has run into some early resistance: The Department of Corrections testified against it at its first hearing Monday. The Department charges that the bill was written so only one nonprofit — CEO — will qualify to run the grants program. 

CEO is already administering a similar, but much smaller, pilot program in Colorado. That effort is funded by private donations; among its recipients is Demetrius Somerville, 48, a Colorado Springs resident.

“People might think you're just giving them fish, but you're teaching 'em how to fish,” he said. 

Somerville once had a promising college basketball career at George Mason University, but it was derailed by an injury and he later became involved in drug trafficking. In the decades since, he was incarcerated several times, including a seven-year federal prison term on drug charges and, more recently, a stint in jail for alleged violation of a restraining order stemming from a domestic dispute, he said.

Upon his release, he started working on a highway trash-cleaning crew through CEO. At the same time, he qualified for up to $3,000 from the prototype version of the reentry grant. He’s hopeful the extra money will help him break the cycle of recidivism.

“I was able to buy a car and that opened up a lot of doors for me,” he said. “I was able to be there for my kids, seek more gainful employment, and also hopefully find a better job and get to that job." 

The nonprofit’s pilot program only has enough funding to serve about 100 people. If the state bill passes, it would provide tens of millions of dollars in funding to offer similar grants to thousands of people. 

The state legislation would set up a “pilot” program, running from this year until July 2026. In that time, state analysts estimate it could serve close to 9,000 people, at a total cost of more than $22 million. About $2 million of that sum would go to the nonprofit to cover its expenses.

That’s an exponential increase over the state’s current spending of about $1 million per year in similar support for those leaving incarceration. State law requires that most people leaving the Department of Corrections receive $100 in “gate money,” according to Greenhagen.

The state’s overall corrections budget is more than $1 billion. The sponsors argue that while the grant program may cost a lot up front, it could save much more if it reduces recidivism rates. The measure is being sponsored by Sen. James Coleman, Sen. Julie Gonzales, Rep. Mary Young, and Rep. Javier Mabrey, all Democrats.

Criticism from the Department of Corrections and others

Corrections officials have made it clear they’re strongly skeptical of the bill.

Adrienne Sanchez, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Department of Corrections, said the department had a number of concerns, starting with the fact that the measure is written so narrowly that DOC believes it could only be fulfilled by a single nonprofit — presumably referring to CEO.

The bill text states that preference for the contract to run the program should go to an entity that has “demonstrated success in providing workforce services or training programs, administering cash assistance, and collaborating with service providers who assist persons after incarceration.”

“This unfairly limits the department’s and participants’ ability to select the reentry provider,” Sanchez said.

In an interview, Greenhagen acknowledged that since her nonprofit, CEO, is the only one in the state running a similar program already, it likely would get preference under the current language of the bill.

But she said the group would be “very happy” to compete for the contract, and it also would support another organization if it’s not selected.

“Whether we're the best organization to facilitate that or someone else is, what we're really for is the impact to the people that we serve,” she said.

Sanchez, of DOC, also critiqued what she described as a lack of clear objectives for the bill. And she said the department is pursuing its own strategies for supporting formerly incarcerated people, including paying them more for work performed while incarcerated, and expanding post-release support. 

“The bill duplicates services already being provided,” she said.

A study of an earlier program run by CEO, the nationwide Returning Citizens Stimulus program, found that most participants spent the money on “basic needs,” and that the vast majority stuck with the program, completing tasks such as getting health check-ups, attending workshops and filling out resumes. But as of Sept. 2021, the ongoing study — carried out by the nonprofit MDRC — could not yet say whether cash support ultimately kept people out of the criminal justice system.

Cory Gaines, a conservative commentator and educator in northeastern Colorado, was the other critic of the bill at its first hearing. There may be room to improve upon the $100 in “gate money” currently paid by the state, he said, “but I question whether 30 times that amount is going to have 30 times the effect.”

The hearing on Monday allowed both sides to share their views but ended without action. Sen. Gonzales asked that a vote on the measure be delayed so the sponsors could work on the measure and address concerns.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently vetoed a similar measure due to cost concerns.