By Peter Rossi, LAW WEEK COLORADO
DENVER — After some fireworks earlier this year, Colorado’s Sentencing Policy Task Force has begun meetings to tackle ways to reduce recidivism. The 23-person task force was spawned from Senate Bill 286, which proposed sweeping reform to sentencing guidelines.
When the bill was introduced, district attorneys in this year’s legislative session were irked, and complained the proposal had not been properly vetted. Among other details, the bill proposed to lower penalties for nonviolent property and drug offenses, including eliminating jail time.
The bill, brought late in the session, ultimately died when the interested parties agreed to spend a portion of the summer hammering out legislative recommendations that both sides can live with.
Colorado’s Public Defender Doug Wilson is participating on the task force, as is Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, and four Colorado district attorneys representing both sides of the political aisle. Many others, with vast and varied areas of expertise in the subject, are also represented.
“The Senate Bill 286 approach is what we’re all trying to avoid,” said Boulder DA Stan Garnett, who is also participating.
Target dates for completion
So far the task force, which is a subcommittee of Colorado’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, has met three times. Splitting into subgroups, members shave been delving into topics ranging from specific sentencing guidelines, including driving with a suspended license and the penalties for escaping from halfway houses.
The group plans to meet regularly through the fall, with the target date of Oct. 9 to present preliminary recommendations, and then present a rough draft to the full commission on Nov. 13. The commission will vote in December on recommended legislation that will be formally presented to legislators for consideration.
Public Defender Wilson identified mandatory minimum sentences as one area in need of review. It’s problematic, he says, when judges have no discretion when meting out sentences. He cites, by way of example, minimum mandatory sentences for assault on a police officer, which currently nets at least five years in jail.
“I’m not suggesting people should hit cops, but if I punch someone and he says ‘ouch’ that [is] a misdemeanor,” Wilson said. According to current sentencing requirements, “If you have a badge on, I have to do five years in prison, and there is no judicial discretion.”
What’s working, what’s not
Mandatory minimums drive up prison costs, Wilson notes, drawing agreement from defense attorney Lee Foreman.
“The bottom line is the state can’t afford to unnecessarily incarcerate people when it doesn’t do much to advance public safety,” Foreman said.
However, it’s unclear how willing prosecutors are going to be to sign off on changes in mandatory sentencing.
Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey says there is no quick fix to revising sentencing statutes in the state.
“You have to look at each area of concern and see what’s working and what isn’t working,” he said.
Another specific issue being considered in a breakout group that both Storey and Wilson are involved in is the crime of escaping from halfway houses. For his part, Wilson maintains that mandatory sentences for people who walk away from halfway houses should also be revised to allow for individual judges’ discretion. Often, he said, mothers with children commit the crime — leaving a halfway house to spend time with their children.
“These aren’t people preying on others,” Wilson said. “It should be a judicial decision, not a mandatory sentence.”
Storey maintains that people who walk away from halfway houses and commit crimes should be prosecuted fully. But he conceded that, “if the person is gone (from a halfway house) for two days and they come back, we look at that differently and we will plea.”
“Rather, if they don’t come back or if they commit a crime, we look at that more seriously,” he said.
All parties agree that recidivism needs to be reduced.
60 percent back in jail
Currently, according to a study by the Colorado Department of Safety, 60 percent of prisoners end up back to jail within three years.
“The system has missed the focus on how to reintegrate people back into society,” Foreman said. Foreman suggested bolstering drug treatment programs for offenders because drugs “are at the heart of so many offenses.”
“Programs cost money, but the hope is the state saves money by adjusting sentences to some degree,” he said. “In the long haul, you provide the skills so that they won’t recidivate.”