Changing Colorado's drug sentencing laws to encourage treatment over incarceration for low-level users is an enlightened way to take on the destructive force of addiction.

We hope the Colorado legislature passes a bill that would broadly revise the state's drug sentencing structure.

But it isn't just the content of this bill that is notable, so too how it was created.

This was not a piece of legislation crafted by an interest group behind closed doors and delivered to a lawmaker who had only a passing knowledge of its content. It was the product of what has turned out to be years of discussion and negotiation among experts in criminal law and drug abuse.

Defense lawyers, prosecutors, cops and counselors all were represented on a Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice committee that hashed out the complex bill.
In an era when some politicians think the only way they can get the job done is by shutting out the other side and pushing through proposals that cater to an extreme position — and there's no shortage of examples of that at the statehouse this session — this was a refreshing example of how parties with different perspectives can work together.

Is it perfect? Probably not. Is it a good-faith effort to separate addicts from dealers who prey on those who are hooked? Yes. Is everyone happy with the bill? No.

One of those who takes issue with Senate Bill 250 is Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey. His concerns center on the reduction in top-end sentencing ranges for drug dealers who are selling significant amounts of drugs — $5,000 of meth or $10,000 of heroin. One range, for instance, would drop to four to eight years — from four to 16 years. Morrissey raises good questions.

Bill backers say the rationale for the change lies in real-world sentencing practice that shows dealers almost always get a low- to mid-range sentence and other tools still exist to give dealers longer sentences.

The change should be monitored and re-evaluated down the road.

Other changes would create a mechanism allowing a judge to vacate the felony convictions of drug defendants and replace them with misdemeanors if drug treatment is successfully completed. The bill also would give judges greater leeway to impose residential treatment as a condition of probation.

One of the strengths of the bill is its emphasis on data collection. The intent is to use the information to make refinements when and if problems are detected.

That's a smart approach that takes into account the potential of unforeseen outcomes taking shape, or new issues arising.

Drug addiction tends to be the traveling partner of other difficult criminal justice issues and it makes sense to take it head-on. We're glad to see Colorado is doing so in a thoughtful and collaborative way.