Lawmakers are hoping that reducing sentences for non-violent criminals will both save the state money and lower the recidivism rate.
A bill introduced yesterday by Sens. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, takes a sweeping approach to sentencing reform by aiming to lower the degree and penalty of most non-violent crimes.
Senate Bill 286 would eliminate incarceration as a sentencing option for first-time non-violent offenders; lower sentencing ranges; allow judges the option to sentence defendants to probation, even in circumstances where they have two previous felonies; prohibit judges from sentencing criminals to jail or prison for a probation violation unless it is a new crime; cut down sentences by two days a month for good behavior; and require individuals seeking to create a new crime or increase penalties of an existing crime to present their proposal to the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.
The measure would affect cases beginning July 1st.
District attorneys are “strongly opposed” to the legislation, arguing that with only three weeks left in the legislative session, there is not enough time to fully consider such comprehensive reform. District attorneys also believe that reducing penalties would lead to more crime by lowering the criminal justice fear factor.
But Morse points out that a third of Colorado adults are in the corrections system, resulting in the state spending $686 million this year on the system. He said that for every one person spared prison, five children could be educated.
“It is time to redirect our investment from retribution to reentry,” said Morse. “We need to hold offenders accountable, but we need to do so in a way that benefits society instead of in a way that bleeds society the resources it needs to educate the next generation.”
Supporters say they would use the money saved through sentencing reform on rehabilitation and social services, such as mental health and drug abuse counseling and early intervention.
A fiscal note was not made available yesterday, but supporters said the measure would save the state millions.
Critics, however, say that while sentencing reform is necessary, the approach taken in Senate Bill 286 is all wrong.
“This is a massive restructuring of how our criminal justice system works, and it’s being dropped 21 days before the end of the session when they’re already tied up with budget issues,” said Ted Tow, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council.
Tow called it “offensive” that lawmakers chose to bypass the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, while still adding a provision that all new proposed laws and increased penalties would need to go through the commission.
District attorneys are also raising concerns that the reform would eliminate certain extraordinary risk sentencing provisions on Class 1 misdemeanors, such as aggravated robbery, child abuse, stalking, selling drugs and certain assaults. Extraordinary risk crimes allow judges to increase the maximum sentence.
“They claim that this will not affect violent crime sentencing, but that is a flat-out misstatement,” said Tow.
He is also concerned that the bill would take away the fear factor for criminals on probation by prohibiting judges from sentencing individuals to jail or prison for a probation violation.
“They’re going to have crimes that you cannot go to jail for no matter how many times you fail on probation,” said Tow. “If I ground my teenage son and he leaves the house, I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, you’re still grounded until Saturday.’ I’m going to say, ‘Now you’re grounded until next Saturday.’”
Senate Bill 286 has the support of the fiscally conservative Independence Institute, the state public defender, the Colorado Providers Association and the Colorado Behavioral Health Care Council. Supporters point out that the state is much better off spending its money on re-entry and rehabilitation programs, rather than longer prison sentences.
“The writing’s on the wall for anyone who’s been paying attention to a record economic downturn and budget deficit for the State of Colorado,” said Carroll. “To be blunt, we cannot afford to waste money on things that don’t work.”
A few examples of what sentencing reform would mean:
• Marijuana possession would be considered a petty offense if you have two ounces or less; current law calls for one ounce or less;
• Criminal trespass, forgery, criminal impersonation and certain burglaries would go from felony to misdemeanor crimes for first-time offenders;
• Criminal mischief resulting in property damage of $100 or less would be considered a petty offense instead of a misdemeanor.