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Colorado officials say Obamacare critical to criminal justice reform

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January 7, 2019, 9:26 am

Any reduction in the nation’s bursting-at-the-seams prison population and runaway recidivism rates from the recently passed First Step Act may be offset by the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to undermine and ultimately eliminate the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

That’s according to Colorado criminal justice reform advocates who hope the recent federal prison and sentencing reforms of the First Step Act will have a trickle-down effect to the state and local level, where the majority of Americans are currently incarcerated. Fewer than 200,000 people will be impacted by First Step, while nearly 2 million are incarcerated in state prisons.

But reducing those numbers and rehabilitating and returning more incarcerated Americans to their communities means increasing job training, providing housing and halfway-house programs and, critically, ensuring those people have affordable access to quality healthcare, experts say.

“Obamacare is a piece of this because the Medicaid expansion basically ensures people have healthcare, and they’ve [gathered] data on this alone and they’ve said, ‘What’s the difference in recidivism rates for people who have healthcare when they leave prison versus those who don’t?’” Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said. “That data … underscores again the math of this, the common sense and the human and moral imperative. It makes so much sense.”

A 2017 Pew Charitable Trusts study found that “research suggests that underlying health issues, particularly substance use disorders and mental illness, contribute to incarceration and recidivism, and that treatment, combined with seamless care continuity for individuals when they return to communities, can help prevent both.”

Last month, just as Congress surprisingly found bipartisan common ground and passed First Step, a Texas judge continued the Trump administration’s drumbeat of undercutting the key provisions of Obamacare while failing to facilitate a workable alternative. Ruling the ACA is unconstitutional, the judge ensured a court battle with state’s attorneys general such as Weiser.

Now the newly-seated, Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives is seeking to intervene in the Texas case that was brought by Republican attorneys general and other GOP elected officials, trying to preserve the ACA’s protections for preexisting conditions and provisions allowing Medicaid expansion – both seen as keys to rehabilitating prison populations.

“It’s critical for this population to be able to access healthcare,” said Hassan Latif, executive director of the Second Chance Center in Aurora – a program whose participants enjoy a less than 10 percent recidivism rate while the state average tops 50 percent within three years. “There was a time when even those who are out on parole had to make the choice between being able to pay exorbitant rents in Denver metro or addressing some healthcare need.

“I’m sitting here actually praying that what happened in Texas is just a prelude to a new House and some new movement where it concerns affordable healthcare and actually stabilizing it and securing it from the kind of assault it’s been undergoing in the last few years,” Latif added.

Prior to the ACA, which insures around 500,000 Coloradans through both Medicaid expansion and direct enrollment on the state exchange, Latif said parolees were often returned to jail for being “out of location” in search of healthcare at a distant clinic. And people in halfway houses or community corrections had “inmate status” that prevented them from even getting insurance.

“So when the ACA came through, it was like a breakthrough for hundreds and hundreds of people in the Denver metro area who were in community corrections,” Latif said. “It was great that it ended people having to sneak around to go to a dentist or go to a clinic to address some issue. It opened up a different kind of a world for folks where it concerned healthcare.”

Now he says that safety net is under a new level of threat. Here’s an excerpt from an article last week on criminal justice reform that RealVail.com contributed to Colorado Politics. Click here to read the entire story.

In wake of federal First Step Act, Colorado eyes criminal justice reform

With the passage last month of the bipartisan First Step Act, there’s renewed hope among criminal justice reform advocates in Colorado that more can be done in the state legislative session starting Friday, Jan. 4 to reduce local jail and state prison overcrowding and recidivism rates.

According to a recently released report by Cornell University and the tech-industry lobby FWD.us, Colorado is in the top half of the nation in terms of incarceration rates, ranking 24th with just under 20,000 people in prisons and local jails around the state. Overall, the United States has the largest number of people behind bars in the world at about 2.2 million.

And only about 180,000 of those inmates are federal prisoners who will be impacted by the sentencing reforms and job-training provisions of the First Step Act, which both Colorado senators voted for on Dec. 18 and President Donald Trump signed into law on Dec. 21. Still, Democrat Michael Bennet, a co-sponsor of the bill, says it’s a good “first step” he hopes will have a trickle-down effect in terms of state reforms.

“[First Step] is the result of principled bipartisan compromise — regrettably a rare sight in today’s Senate — that has earned broad support from both the law enforcement community and criminal justice reform advocates,” Bennet told Colorado Politics. “These reforms are a first step in a longer effort to reduce mass incarceration and restore faith in our justice system.”

Republican Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner failed in his bid to get marijuana banking approved via an amendment to the First Step Act, but he ultimately voted in favor of the reform package.

“While we are debating criminal justice reform, we need to address the threat of prosecution by the federal government for people in Colorado that are operating legal businesses under state law,” Gardner said during last month’s debate.

Newly elected Democratic Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser applauds Gardner’s efforts on the legal marijuana front, decrying federal policies that make it difficult for Colorado businesses that have been complying with state law since 2012. Weiser adds that a big part of the state’s mass incarceration problem is how it treats low-level drug offenses, including opioid addiction.

“Part of this awakening that we’re having is that drug addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue,” Weiser said. “Colorado should be a nationwide leader on this because we’re a pragmatic problem-solver. We saw the virtues of legalizing marijuana before any other state, but we have not actually been a leader on criminal justice reform. I believe that’s poised to change.”

With the Colorado General Assembly convening on Friday, Weiser says he’s been working closely with both Mike Weissman, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Pete Lee, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on a variety of criminal justice reform measures. Democrats now control both chambers, but Lee says it’s increasingly a bipartisan economic issue.

“It was an interesting collaboration and coalition of folks who were responsible for that First Step bill,” said Lee, a Democrat from El Paso County. “It was a coming together of (ready for this?) the Koch brothers and the ACLU, together with Jared Kushner.”

Lee, a longtime criminal justice reformer as a member of the state house, now joins the senate with an eye toward continuing his across-the-aisle collaborations with Republican state Rep. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs. Lee says it’s a bottom-line issue when the Colorado Department of Corrections commands upwards of a billion dollars a year in state spending. That alone should get the attention of most Republicans, Lee says, especially when the system is broken.

“[Trump son-in-law and top advisor] Kushner has experience with the criminal justice system because his father served time in a federal prison,” Lee said. “When people have firsthand experience with the criminal justice system, they begin to have some understanding of how inhumane and ineffective it really is.”

Click here to read the entire Colorado Politics story.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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