Bill granting reduced sentences for non-violent inmates earning college degrees passes House

Passes House 61-1


ALAMOSA — A bill that allows non-violent offenders in prison to earn time off their sentence by earning a college degree or certificate has passed the Colorado House of Representatives with one vote shy of unanimous, bipartisan approval.

Introduced by Rep. Matt Martinez (D-District 62) with sponsorship by Rep. Rose Pugliese (R-Dist. 14), HB23-1027 “Department of Corrections Earned Time for College Program Completion” would grant incarcerated individuals earned time off their sentence for degrees earned from an accredited university while in prison. 

Specifically, an inmate serving time in the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) for a non-violent felony could reduce their sentence by a year for a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, 18 months for a master’s and two years for a Ph.D. People can also reduce their sentence by six months for completion of a certification course from an accredited institution of higher education.

If an inmate is already within six months to a year of being released from prison, the balance of the earned time can be credited toward parole.

“This bill prepares incarcerated Coloradans for success when they’re released from prison by giving them the tools they need to thrive,” Martinez told the Valley Courier. “Creating pathways for incarcerated people to earn credits toward degrees and certificates that create opportunities for good paying careers after they’ve served their time also reduces the likelihood that the person will commit another crime and end up back in prison.”

According to a report by ProPublica, Colorado has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the nation — defined by the DOC as returning to prison within three years — with 50% of formerly incarcerated people returning to prison.

However, a comprehensive study conducted by the Northwestern Prison Education System shows that obtaining education in prison reduces that recidivism rate by as much as 43%. And the higher the degree, the lower the recidivism rate.

Among those who receive their associate’s degree while incarcerated, only 14% reoffend and return to prison. For those who obtain a bachelor’s degree, that number drops to 5.6% for those who obtain a bachelor’s degree and to 0% for those who obtain a master’s degree.

Martinez’s bill also includes a financial benefit both locally and at the state level.

“This bill also really benefits rural higher education schools like Adams State and Trinidad,” Martinez said. “This will not only help them with their drop in enrollment — which all universities are experiencing — but will also increase their enrollment among a very underserved population. And those students will become eligible for PELL grants in July.”

PELL grants provide federal funding for economically challenged students to attend college. Currently, incarcerated people are not eligible for PELL funding.

“The bill will also give ASU and Trinidad a dollar drop for something that they’re already doing,” Martinez said. “The bill will generate a cost savings to the state because there will be less money spent on people in prison when their sentences are reduced. How this bill is written right now will give half of that cost savings to the state so they can expand education opportunities and half will go to the colleges like Adams State and Trinidad for the classes and degrees they’re already providing to incarcerated Coloradans.”

Currently, Martinez says, only four colleges are providing college classes to incarcerated people — ASU, Trinidad, Pueblo Community College and CSU Pueblo.

The bill now heads to the Senate where it is being sponsored by Sen. Julie Gonzales (D-Dist. 34).

Martinez has been serving in the Colorado House for less than two months. Having a bill pass 61-1 is a noteworthy accomplishment for anyone, let alone such a junior representative.

That success was emphasized even further when, just moments before speaking to the Valley Courier, another bill Martinez had introduced was passed by unanimous vote out of committee. That bill, introduced by Martinez at the request of Saguache County, would grant state approval for county commissioners to have greater flexibility in offering competitive salaries of elected officials, like sheriffs.

When asked how he feels, Martinez just laughed.

“This feels good. This feels really good. This is why I came here, to get these kinds of things done,” Martinez said.