Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

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.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Opposition To The Death Penalty

David Lane wrote this article that appeared in the Denver Post Perspective (I couldn't find in online though). David is an extremely well-respected civil-rights attorney in Denver, member of CCJRC and long-time opponent of the death penalty.

By David Lane

Opposition to the death penalty is rising around the nation, and that should motivate newly-elected officials in Colorado to seriously reconsider the conventional wisdom of the past and consider abolishing the Colorado death-penalty law, as well as broadly reforming our sentencing laws.

A legislative commission in New Jersey recently recommended by an overwhelming majority that the state legislature abolish the death penalty as being contrary to “evolving standards of decency” in society.

It is expected that New Jersey will be the first state in 35 years to abolish this relic of a barbaric past. Colorado should follow suit.

Currently Colorado has only two people on death row. Experts deem it likely that procedural errors at the trial level will ultimately result in death sentences being vacated for both Nathan Dunlap and Edward Montour, who will instead receive sentences of life imprisonment without possibility of parole, thereby emptying our death row. Montour was convicted in the 2003 murder of a corrections officer. Dunlap was convicted for the 1993 murder of four employees at a restaurant in Aurora.

Since 1980, Colorado has spent well over $50 million dollars in the extended trial and appellate procedures of potential death penalty cases for the sole purpose of executing one person — Gary Davis in 1997. These costs are built into every death penalty case and include attorneys fees and expert witness fees for both the prosecution and defense of a death penalty case. Putting aside all the philosophical arguments about the death penalty, spending that kind of cash for a demonstrably failed government program is foolish beyond words.

It is reflective of a social pathology that values naked vengeance over rational public policy. Are we willing to spend millions to execute one person while our children are attending failing schools?

The death penalty is in full retreat nationally. Last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, there were fewer than 114 death sentences imposed by juries, down from a high of 317 in 1996. Last year 53 executions were carried out, down from 98 in 1999. This is reflective of society’s understanding that wrongful convictions are not uncommon and that life without possibility of parole (Colorado’s alternative to death) is a just punishment.
Politicians for years have been far more committed to the death penalty than the public. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, national polls have shown that when the death penalty is compared to life without parole, where the killer is forced to work his entire life making restitution to the victim’s family, only 41% percent of the public favors the death penalty.

Colorado is currently considering sentencing reform on a large scale. HB1094 sponsored by rep. Paul Weissman would eliminate the death penalty and cycle the savings into the investigations of cold cases. This is a far more productive use of scarce resources than spending millions to satisfy a mythical societal blood-lust.

It has recently been reported that the cost of prison expansion in Colorado under current law could cause a virtual standstill in other capital improvement projects statewide.
Mandatory sentencing resulting in thousands of non-violent offenders being incarcerated for years is draining the life out of this state.

Throwing money down the rat-hole of prison expansion and the death penalty is absolutely absurd, given the plight of our schools and the availability of sound alternatives. Forcing judges to ignore justice in any given case and send non-violent people to prison so that politicians can crow about how tough they are on crime is harming Colorado.

The legislature and governor need to take a hard look at sentencing in Colorado. We can make a good start by eliminating the death penalty and many mandatory sentences for non-violent offenders.

Habitual criminal statutes such as California’s notorious “three strikes” law sound good but often result in massively expensive long-term incarceration not for people who are menaces to society but who are instead merely public nuisances. Sending low-level drug users who have written bad checks and shoplifted to prison for decades of incarceration at about $30,000 per year to the taxpayers is simply a foolish waste of money and lives.

For a fraction of the cost of incarceration, the state could run serious intervention programs designed to change people’s behavior, give them skills to live successfully and ultimately become productive members of society.

Any society is in dire straits when its prison budget squeezes other, more valuable government programs, and this is where Colorado finds itself. Serious sentencing reform will go a long way toward restoring fiscal sanity to our state.

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