Don’t downgrade critical drug laws

Some Colorado lawmakers, urged on by a variety of groups, want to reduce Colorado drug-possession laws from felonies to misdemeanors.

We think that’s a mistake, but not because we want to see nonviolent drug offenders locked up in prison. Just the opposite. A possible felony conviction is a great incentive to get drug offenders into treatment programs and to persuade them to successfully complete treatment, and thus stay out of prison.

Senate Bill 63 addresses drugs such as heroine, cocaine, methamphetamine and prescription painkillers. It would not change laws related to marijuana possession. It would reduce simple possession of these Schedule I and Schedule II drugs to a misdemeanor, instead of a Class 6 felony, as is the case now.

SB 63 was approved by a Senate committee last week with bipartisan support. But there are several problems with the legislation. The first is that it bypasses the work of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which has been meeting for several years to develop recommendations on changing state sentences. The idea is to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison and reduce prison costs to the state.

Lawmakers should allow the commission to complete its work and not arbitrarily change some sentences without the benefit of the commission’s work.

Those who support the bill argue it will reduce prison crowding because those convicted of misdemeanors aren’t sentenced to the state penitentiary. But, at best, it is a cost-shifting measure to the counties, since those convicted of misdemeanors who do jail time, do so in county jails.

Support for SB 63 is problematic for other reasons.

For one, first-time drug offenders busted for simple possession almost never go to prison. Those who end up in prison usually have other, related crimes, such as burglary. They will remain in prison even if the drug-possession charge is reduced.

Those who are sentenced only for possession generally have any prison time suspended, so long as they successfully complete a drug treatment program such as those available in Mesa County. But if they are sentenced to county jails, they rarely have access to treatment programs in jail.

Furthermore, as several local law enforcement officials made clear in a meeting last week with The Daily Sentinel, without the possibility of a felony conviction, the evidence shows that drug users arrested on possession charges have far less incentive to enter and complete drug treatment programs. Those who do complete them likely will not have a felony conviction on their records, since that conviction is eliminated with the successful completion of the program.

The people pushing SB 163 are no doubt sincere in wanting to reduce prison populations. But their efforts will likely make it more difficult to utilize successful treatment programs such as those available in Mesa County. And that would be a step backward, not forward.


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