State Bill News
DENVER — After some fireworks earlier this year, Colorado’s Sentencing Policy Task Force has begun meetings to tackle ways to reduce recidivism. The 23-person task force was spawned from Senate Bill 286, which proposed sweeping reform to sentencing guidelines.
When the bill was introduced, district attorneys in this year’s legislative session were irked, and complained the proposal had not been properly vetted. Among other details, the bill proposed to lower penalties for nonviolent property and drug offenses, including eliminating jail time.
The bill, brought late in the session, ultimately died when the interested parties agreed to spend a portion of the summer hammering out legislative recommendations that both sides can live with.
Colorado’s Public Defender Doug Wilson is participating on the task force, as is Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, and four Colorado district attorneys representing both sides of the political aisle. Many others, with vast and varied areas of expertise in the subject, are also represented.
“The Senate Bill 286 approach is what we’re all trying to avoid,” said Boulder DA Stan Garnett, who is also participating.
Target dates for completion
So far the task force, which is a subcommittee of Colorado’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, has met three times. Splitting into subgroups, members shave been delving into topics ranging from specific sentencing guidelines, including driving with a suspended license and the penalties for escaping from halfway houses.
The group plans to meet regularly through the fall, with the target date of Oct. 9 to present preliminary recommendations, and then present a rough draft to the full commission on Nov. 13. The commission will vote in December on recommended legislation that will be formally presented to legislators for consideration.
Public Defender Wilson identified mandatory minimum sentences as one area in need of review. It’s problematic, he says, when judges have no discretion when meting out sentences. He cites, by way of example, minimum mandatory sentences for assault on a police officer, which currently nets at least five years in jail.
“I’m not suggesting people should hit cops, but if I punch someone and he says ‘ouch’ that [is] a misdemeanor,” Wilson said. According to current sentencing requirements, “If you have a badge on, I have to do five years in prison, and there is no judicial discretion.”
Mandatory minimums drive up prison costs, Wilson notes, drawing agreement from defense attorney Lee Foreman.
“The bottom line is the state can’t afford to unnecessarily incarcerate people when it doesn’t do much to advance public safety,” Foreman said.