By Debi Brazzale, COLORADO NEWS AGENCY
Drug addiction and crime are serving as catalysts to unite some Democratic and Republican, as well as the attorney general and the state Public Defender’s Office, behind what they say is a common goal: reducing sentencing for drug offenders while carving out treatment opportunities from the cost savings. The resulting legislation, House Bill 1352, was introduced in the House Tuesday with wide-ranging bipartisan sponsorship.
“It’s a rare day when the Public Defender’s Office and the attorney general appear together to support a bill,” Republican Attorney General John Suthers said at a news conference showcasing the legislation.
The bill creates a distinction between possession of drugs and distribution of drugs by reducing sentences for possession, and it focuses on treatment rather than incarceration for those drug offenders who are primarily addicts.
The primary sponsors of the bill, Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, and Sens. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, and Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, based the bill upon recommendations from the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, whose members hail from different quarters of the criminal justice system. The premise of the bill that emerged out of the recommendations is that jailing non-violent drug offenders is not the best use of public-safety dollars.
“It’s time to switch our focus from being tough on crime to being smart on crime,” said Waller. “This bill is about how we can get the best bang for our public-safety dollars.”
Steadman said the state could save money and lives by being smarter.
“Incarceration is really not the right answer. The real problem with most prisoners is addiction,” said Steadman. “We need to be smarter with public resources by not simply warehousing drug addicts.”
Christie Donner, Executive Director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said the measure will have far-reaching benefts for children whose parents are incarcerated.
“This change in approach will interrupt the cycle of addiction and involvement in the criminal justice system,” said Donner. “Families, especially the children, of those caught up in addiction and the criminal justice system, will benefit the most when the cycle is interrupted.”
The sponsors of the bill and its supporters in the criminal justice community say that using state resources for treatment leading to recovery will cut down on recidivism and save the state money in the long run. They say that could help prevent many crimes from being committed in the first place, such as burglary when a criminal is motivated by drug use.
Mesa Count District Attorney Pete Hautzinger implemented a treatment program for methamphetamine addicts in Mesa County, and he said there was a dramatic decline in felonies after the program was put in place.
“If we can get the drug addict ‘unaddicted’ we can prevent all sorts of other crimes,” said Hautzinger.
Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, who is another of the bill’s sponsors and chairs the House Judiciary Committee, where the bill will be vetted first, said she hopes the proposal will be a real turning point in how crime and criminal sentencing are approached.
“I hope this is a beginning of a whole new attitude,” said Levy.
In other coverage:
The Denver Post: Drug offenders could spend less time in jail and more time in rehabilitation programs under a sentencing-reform proposal that debuted at the state Capitol on Tuesday with widespread support and the goal of curbing repeat offenses. The plan would lower the penalties for people found in possession of up to 4 grams of most drugs, shaving years off sentences and saving the state money by vacating prison beds, advocates said. The savings — which doubters argue may never materialize — could provide the first large and reliable funding stream to treat drug offenders’ addictions.
The Denver Daily News: Lawmakers are again questioning whether to either treat drug users with community-based counseling, or send them to prison for long sentences. A bipartisan group of lawmakers yesterday unveiled House Bill 1352, which would reduce the charge for simple possession for most drugs from a class 6 felony to a class 1 misdemeanor. Simple possession would be defined as four grams, instead of one gram in all cases except for with methamphetamine. In the case of meth, simple possession would be defined as two grams or less.
Associated Press: Drug users could end up spending less time behind bars to free up more money for treatment under an overhaul of the state’s drug laws being pushed by bipartisan group of lawmakers as well as prosecutors and public defenders. State law currently treats drug users and dealers much the same. People convicted of possessing one gram or less can face between two to six years in state prison.
Colorado Springs Gazette: A Colorado Springs lawmaker says his plan to cut prison sentences for drug users could reduce crime while saving the state money. Republican Rep. Mark Waller’s bill would convert most drug possession and use crimes to misdemeanors or lesser felonies under Colorado’s expansive sentencing schemes, cutting sentences by half or more. He would use some of the money saved in prisons to reinvigorate drug treatment programs.
KDVR: Drug users in Colorado may be doing less time in jail and more time in rehab if lawmakers can pass a bill that was introduced at the Capitol Tuesday with widespread support from Democrats, Republicans and district attorneys alike. “While stiff sentences are appropriate in many circumstances, we realize that’s not the only option when it comes to keeping the public safe,” said Rep. Mark Waller, R- Colorado Springs, who is the sponsor of House Bill 1352, which would lower the penalties for people found in possession of up to 4 grams of most drugs, shaving years off sentences and saving the state money by vacating prison beds, advocates said.