The Prison Population in Colorado is Dropping. Can You Guess Why?

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Keith Humphreys, writer, researcher, and Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University nominates himself for reporting the most unreported public policy issue; the declining rate of Americans incarcerated or on probation.

Humphreys’ research theorizes that lead is a key factor associated with a decline in prison population over the past five years. His speculation is supported by a rise in lead emissions throughout the 60s and 70s resulting in a high crime rate during the 70s and 80s. Humphreys claims that even though crime rates went down in the early 90’s, incarceration rates were impacted by the remaining inmates serving long terms from the 60s and 70s while new inmates were being incarcerated.   Image courtesy hayesvillelibrary.wordpress.org

Rick Nevin is a researcher who dug deeper into the lead theory. Nevin’s investigative studies reveal that young offender incarceration rates have decreased since the dawning of 2000. In the mean time older offenders were increasing and the incarceration rate remained high. The reasoning behind Nevin’s hypothesis is that the older offenders grew up during the time period when lead emissions were high and young offenders were not exposed to lead being raised in a more environmentally conscious era.

Humphreys’ perspective on the lead emissions theory derives from his evaluative research methods and mental health background. Humphreys bases his crime rate theory connection to lead because of its toxic effects on the brain. Exposure to lead results in toxins being carried through the bloodstream to the brain, where it can cause many types of neurodevelopmental damage, damage that affects IQ, learning, and behavior. Many of the offenders incarcerated in the 70s and 80s attended schools or lived in homes contaminated by paint containing lead. The lead paint can be ingested by inhaling dust containing lead.   

The impact of the declining prison population is being experienced in the state of Colorado and trickling down to surrounding communities that are economically dependent upon prison growth. 

The Buena Vista Correctional Complex located in a small mountain town 130 miles south-west of Denver is an example of a community that depends on prison employment to remain economically stable.

In response to Colorado’s declining prison population the Buena Vista Correctional Complex closed a housing unit with 117 beds at the end of 2012 which resulted in 13 lay-offs.    

Colorado houses inmates in 20 state-run prisons and four private prisons. Some of these prisons have been closed because of the deteriorating state-wide prison population.

The Division of Criminal Justice based their prison population forecast on an increasing population rate between 2002- 2009. The prediction was reversed when the prison population decreased by 7,319 from 2009-2013.

Colorado Department of Corrections spokes person Alison Morgan has an entirely different take on the reason for the declining state prison population than Humphreys’ and Nevin’s lead theory. She believes the decline in prison population is a result of decreasing crime rates and preventative programs.

Regardless of the cause, whether from dwindling lead emissions or programs that reduce the crime rate, a declining prison population is a positive social condition, but has depressing economic consequences for communities dependent upon prison employment.

Perhaps the new trend in declining prison population is a wake-up call for creating new jobs in the crime prevention field.