The Denver Post
Prosecutors and sheriffs across Colorado are upset about a bill in the state legislature that would reduce the crime of possessing small quantities of some drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor — a move they say would be a financial nightmare.
But supporters of Senate Bill 163 say the legislation is a way to get chronic drug users treatment rather than prison terms and felony convictions that condemn them to a life of poverty and hopelessness.
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said the bill would kill the city's successful drug court and could drive up the cost of dealing with petty drug offenders.
"And it has a fiscal impact from anywhere from $3 million to $5 million for a city that has had to cut budgets for the past three to four years," Morrissey said.
Mesa County officials say that jail costs would climb by more than $400,000 a year for a sheriff's office that had to lay off 33 people last year.
Mesa County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Rubinstein says there are studies that show the consequences of a felony are effective in encouraging drug abusers to find treatment. Plus, he said the downgrading of charges is the "wrong message to send to our citizens that these drugs shouldn't be taken seriously."
But one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said the bill's purpose is to better help drug users find treatment and supervision that would be more effective than the current system of "escalating punishments that often result in a prison sentence."
The bill would reduce the penalty for possession of 4 grams or less of certain drugs from a Class 6 felony to a Class 1 misdemeanor and reduce possession of more than 4 grams of those drugs from a Class 4 felony to Class 6. Savings generated would be routed to drug treatment.
According to a fiscal analysis of the bill, about $2.2 million would be transferred to drug treatment in its first full year.
Drug-dealing and -manufacturing remain felonies.
Support is coming from the Colorado Criminal Defense Foundation, the Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the Independence Institute.
"There are 20 states who have misdemeanors for low-level possession," said Christie Donner, director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "It is not radical. We are trying to do a justice-reinvestment strategy, which is to identify ways you can reduce the prison population, capture those dollars and put it into strategies that we know reduce crime and recidivism."
Opponents include Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, the Colorado District Attorneys Council and the Colorado Methamphetamine Task Force.
Morrissey said it is a myth that drug offenders disproportionately go to prison, especially in Denver, which has one-third of the state's drug cases.
Of more than 420 drug offenders prosecuted in Denver in 2011 for a Class 6 felony, 21 went to prison. Twenty of those convicts had felonies other than the drug charge. And only one of those was convicted for simple possession. That person had an extensive criminal history, Morrissey said.
The biggest problem with the bill, he said, is drug offenders wouldn't be able to access Denver's drug court — which is part of Denver District Court, not County Court, which is separate.
Morrissey said he does not have the authority to file misdemeanors directly into District Court — thus those offenders wouldn't be eligible for Denver's drug court.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, through a spokeswoman, said the city has yet to take a stand on the bill but doesn't like its current language "due to the projected fiscal impacts on the city and the disruption on the effective drug-court strategies currently in place."
Co-sponsor Steadman said the bill is based on evidence of what works.
"The money we spend on prison cells is not well-spent when you are talking about people with drug addiction," he said. "When you keep people in the community and in treatment, they don't cost taxpayers the money of a prison bed, and they can get the help they need."
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.
Saturday, April 07, 2012
The Denver Post