By Gene Davis, DENVER DAILY NEWS
A Senate committee is scheduled today to consider a bill that would dramatically reform drug-sentencing laws in Colorado.
House Bill 1352 would place an emphasis on providing drug users with community-based counseling rather than sending them to prison for long sentences. The bill argues that well-prepared therapy and treatment plans can serve as a better alternative to jail in many cases and should be used accordingly.
Dan Murphy, CEO of Arapahoe House, which provides substance abuse treatment programs, pointed out that approximately 75 percent of people in Colorado’s prison system are serving time for using drugs. He fully supports the bill and believes it could be a more effective way to deal with some drug users.
“I don’t see it as saving the state money so much as spending the money in a smarter way,” he said on Friday.
Despite the bill passing out of the House on broad bipartisan support, not everyone is in favor of the legislation. Beverly Kinard, founder of Guarding Our Children Against Marijuana, objected strongly to the $100 fine for petty possession of marijuana, arguing that the fine should be as high as $1,000 to deter children from using pot. She believes that a $1,000 fine would encourage parents to intervene.
“This bill gets the message out to young people that marijuana is OK,” Kinard told lawmakers in the House committee hearing last month.
But lawmakers are looking at both fiscal and social savings to the bill, noting that the measure could potentially lower simple possession sentences for those who are sent to prison from as many as six years in prison to 18 months.
The bill would also stiffen mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers who sell drugs to children.
The legislation stems from recommendations made by the Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice. Unlike sentencing reform bills of years past, HB 1352 has a broad spectrum of support, including the attorney general, prosecutors, defense attorneys, Republicans and Democrats.
“It does take a leap of faith, and it is in so many ways a paradigm shift that we’re asking people to understand in that a way to deal with these possession-type offenses is with an eye toward more good, meaningful evaluations and ongoing meaningful treatment so that you keep them out of the jails and out of the prisons and productive members of society and hopefully break the addiction cycle,” said Tom Raynes, deputy attorney general for the Attorney General’s Office.
Paul Thompson, a former heroin addict who spent time in prison for drug-related crimes but later became a counselor for Peer 1, said it is amazing for him to see lawmakers and prosecutors shift their priorities from sentencing to counseling.
“I believe this bill is historic,” said Thompson last month. “For someone like myself, it’s like watching man land on the moon to watch district attorneys and public defenders working together to help an addict. It’s an incredible thing.”