The Denver Post
Tears flowed Wednesday in a Senate committee when a former meth user talked about how her husband's unexpected death led to her addiction, a prison sentence and foster care for her children.
Pam Clifton, who now works for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, testified in favor of a bill that would reduce the penalty for the crime of possession of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.
The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-2 vote, with two Republicans, Ellen Roberts of Durango and Steve King of Grand Junction, voting "no." Republican Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud voted with the four Democrats.
"It wasn't necessary to put me in prison. It was just the easiest thing to do," said Clifton, 50, who served seven years.
She estimated she had $100 worth of drugs on her when she was arrested, but the state spent thousands locking her up and providing foster care for her daughter and son, who were 7 and 4, respectively, when she went to prison.
Supporters of Senate Bill 163 said the goal is to offer treatment for addicts who often find that a felony conviction sentences them to a lifetime of employment struggles. Drug dealing or manufacturing would remain a felony.
But critics said the bill would overwhelm county jails, and recent sentencing reforms need more time to work.
The bill has an unlikely coalition of sponsors: Sens. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, and Pat Steadman, D-Denver, and Reps. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, and Don Beezley, R-Broomfield. They represent some of the most conservative and liberal members of their chambers.
Mitchell, who earlier revealed he has a brother with a felony conviction because of a meth addiction, said he was impressed with the "thoughtful" testimony from both sides.
"I'm encouraged that this will help us help people more than punish people," he said.
But King said the Mesa County sheriff had to lay off 33 people last year and the bill would result in more county prisoners — a concern of other sheriffs.
"The counties are not any more flush with money than the state is," said Peg Ackerman, lobbyist for the County Sheriffs of Colorado.
Dan Rubinstein, the district attorneys' representative on a drug task force, also argued against the bill. He said defense attorneys he's talked to say the threat of a felony is more effective than a misdemeanor conviction, and prosecutors fear it would undercut sentencing reforms passed in recent years.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
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.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
The Denver Post