Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Friday, August 31, 2007

EDITORIAL- Sleep Easy Colorado - They Brought Jack Branson Down

Sleep easy tonight, Colorado. They finally brought Jack Branson down.

You know him - the rail-thin, 39-year-old, disease-wracked Thornton man who doctors once gave less than a year to live. They needed about a dozen agents and officers to corral the barely walking desperado, so cunning that he politely invited them into his home when they arrived with handcuffs.

His conviction Wednesday in Adams County District Court of cultivation of marijuana is one of the saddest outcomes in any metro courthouse in recent memory.

In a nutshell, for 20 years, Branson has battled HIV, must take a dozen pills a day to survive, and long ago learned the only way he can do it was by smoking marijuana. His doctors knew this.

Although Colorado voters in 2000 approved the use of marijuana for medical reasons, his doctor, from the University of Colorado, couldn't write Branson a license for the stuff because CU receives federal funds and she could lose her job if she did.

What would you do?

What Branson did was grow marijuana in his backyard.

The authorities arrived at his house in October 2004, confiscating what they said was more than a dozen plants.

Never once did they say he was growing the stuff for anyone else. Whom, pray tell, was this sick man hurting?

The decision by the jury of nine women and three men was bizarre: While nailing him on the cultivation charge, they acquitted him of a second felony count of possession of more than 8 ounces of marijuana.

Don Quick, the Adams County district attorney, says everyone is missing the point of the Branson case. The last thing Quick ever wanted, he said, was to hang a felony on the man.

Three times, Quick said, his office offered Branson a deferred sentence - the last time when the jury went out. If he was in compliance with the registry and stayed clean for a year, all charges would disappear.

"We know Mr. Branson is a very sick man, and we tried hard to make it work for him," Quick said. "He and his attorney, unfortunately, decided to take a different route. We can't have people out there saying, 'I'm going to use marijuana because I'm sick,' without following the law."

Margaret Branson, the man's mother, still seethed a day after the verdict.

"What were they thinking?" she asked over and over. Her son, she said, was having a bad health day and was unavailable to be interviewed.

"Trust me, he is a good man, a very good person," the 67-year-old woman said. "He was just trying to stay alive."

Dr. Cynthia Firnhaber, his primary physician back in 2004 who now practices in South Africa, had told him, his mother said, to either grow pot or pick out a hospice.

But writing a medical-use license, Margaret Branson said, was out of the question because it would jeopardize the federal funding CU received. Jack Branson would not receive a license until 2005, a year after he was charged.

It keeps him alive, his mother said.

Since the day Jack Branson was charged, his mother has been his most vocal supporter. Her son survives financially on Social Security disability payments and other benefits. She has paid all his legal costs.

He would not, she said, consider a plea agreement on the belief that he had hurt no one, and that he was growing the plants simply to stay alive - what anyone would do. But the felony conviction could jeopardize his benefits.

Of the jury verdict, she said, "I just knew they would listen to reason. This was a victimless crime, but not one person on the jury saw that. It amazes me."

Of the men who prosecuted her son, she said, "I think they wanted to make a statement about medicinal marijuana, and they picked Jack. What a terrible statement."

Jack Branson was sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation. He must pay $5 a month in court costs.

In the end, maybe it did go down the way Quick says it did, giving the man a chance to acknowledge his error, to serve a year's probation, his record then wiped clean.

Or maybe it didn't. Maybe Branson honestly believed he was a victim of a system where doctors - fearful of losing federal dollars - told him to do something now that could not wait for later.

In his shoes, I'm not sure I would have done differently.

So yes, as Quick said, Branson broke the law.

But he broke it because he is dying and suffering pain no human being should endure.

We can all debate the merits of cultivation and other marijuana laws.

Yet you have to think any reasonable person would assume that such laws were not written to hang felonies and possibly imprison the sick and dying Jack Bransons of the world.

Now other arms of the government will likely come in the days ahead to take away felon Branson's medical and disability payments, without which he most certainly can't survive.

I'm guessing that will be described as justice, too.

Rocky Mountain News