Lower-level criminals could face less jail time under a sweeping prison sentencing reform lawmakers plan to unveil today, saying the proposal will cut incarceration costs.
Sen. John Morse's bill would lower penalties for nonviolent, property and drug offenses — some to the point of eliminating jail time altogether. It also would dial back the range on some felony sentences to pre-1985 levels and relax laws that put those on probation behind bars for minor mistakes.
District attorneys say the bill would encourage crime and that there's not enough time left in the legislative session to consider the 46-page overhaul of sentencing law.
Morse, D-Colorado Springs, argues that, as the state struggles to fill a $300 million hole in this year's budget, now is the perfect time.
"Violent offenders ought to be locked up," Morse said. "Nonviolent offenders ought to be held accountable in ways other than (those that) cost us a bloody fortune."
The bill will essentially drop a Class 3 felony down to Class 4 felony sentence levels. Class 4 will drop to Class 5, and so on. The legislation does not affect sentences for capital crimes, sex crimes and many violent offenses.
The proposal has garnered some expected detractors as well as some unusual cheerleaders.
Among its detractors is Gov. Bill Ritter, a former Denver district attorney who appointed the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice two years ago to study reforms of the justice system.
Morse, who sits on the commission, and other critics argue the panel has moved too slowly, but a spokesman for Ritter said the commission is the body that should form and vet new sentencing laws.
"Gov. Ritter doesn't oppose the concept of sentencing reform," said Evan Dreyer, spokesman for the governor. "The legislation was not run past the commission. That makes it difficult if not impossible for the governor to support it."
Among those glad to see a push for sentencing reform is the Independence Institute, a Libertarian think tank, said director Jon Caldara.
"We're looking at this from a dollar-and-cents point of view," Caldara said.
It's unclear how much money, if any, Morse's bill would save.
The bill would allow the Department of Corrections to shorten sentences and allow inmates to earn more time off for good behavior.