Durango Herald News, Ritter and crime
Changes in drug sentencing laws are part of a package of bills meant to bring Colorado's criminal justice system more into line with contemporary thinking. The changes seem to move the state in the right direction.
In particular a law passed by the Legislature and signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Bill Ritter brings lowers penalties for possession of small amounts of pot and other banned substances. Instead of jail time, the change would treat drug use - this does not apply to drug dealers - more as a public health problem and shifts the emphasis toward treatment programs.
Under the provisions of House Bill 1352 people caught with between 1 and 4 grams of drugs such as cocaine, heroin or illegally obtained prescription drugs could be charged with a Class 6 felony and sent to prison for up to 18 months. That is down from a Class 4 felony and up to six years. A similar change applies to methamphetamine, although the amount is limited to no more than 2 grams.
For marijuana, the penalty for having between 1 and 2 ounces is now a fine instead of up to 18 months in prison. Possession of between 2 and 8 ounces can land the person in county jail for ups to a year; down from 18 months in prison. And having between 8 and 12 ounces translates to up to 18 months in prison instead of a maximum of six years.
The changes are intended to do several things. For one, they better reflect the public's priorities and evolving attitude. Locking up people for possessing pot simply does not make sense to most people.
Plus, prisons are expensive. For drug users, treatment programs can not only help them but save the taxpayers money.
The new sentencing guidelines are also intended to codify what is already happening to a great extent. Many drug users charged with possession - again, not dealers - are already being diverted to treatment programs, drug courts and probation. By signing HB 1352 into law, Ritter brought the law closer to reality. That is always a healthy thing.
It is also part of a larger effort that reflects both a philosophical shift and an attempt at cost-cutting. Ritter, a former Denver district attorney, wants more of an emphasis on rehabilitation and lowering the rate of recidivism.
With that in mind, the governor convened the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Made up of prosecutors, lawmakers, public defenders, law enforcement personnel and others involved with the justice system, it recommended a series of reforms, such as the drug sentencing changes.
Related bills passed by the Legislature in the just-ended session will make it easier for prisoners convicted of multiple nonviolent felonies to get parole, increase the amount of time prison sentences can be reduced for good behavior, and cut penalties imposed on parolees for technical violations.