Bill would alter landscape of Colorado’s drug policy
Despite objections from district attorneys and law enforcement officials, a Senate committee approved a bill Wednesday to lower sentences for drug-possession crimes and give drug abusers treatment instead.
The idea behind SB163 is to prevent future crimes by people who become addicted to drugs and to save the state money in having to incarcerate them, its supporters say.
The measure would do that by lowering possession-only drug charges from felonies to misdemeanors, but requiring those convicted of such charges to get treatment for their addiction.
The bill is unusual in that it has supporters from both parties, and it is sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats. A coalition of other supporters range from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Colorado Libertarian Party and the Independence Institute, a Golden-based free-market think tank.
Sen. Shawn Mitchell, one of the legislators who introduced the bill, said the measure is long overdue and reflects an acknowledgement the nation is losing the so-called war on drugs. The time has come to try something new by getting drug users to stop abusing drugs.
“I fail to see the rational response of saying, ‘Let’s hit that person with a hammer because they’re poisoning themselves. Let’s throw them in jail,’” the Broomfield Republican said. “There are other crimes they could commit. There are other harmful things they can do to society. If we catch them, if we convict them of those things, then by all means enforce the law. What we should have is a just and proportionate consequence.”
Several prosecutors and county sheriffs who testified before the committee said that while the bill’s goals are laudable and it would save the state money, it puts a greater burden on county jails.
Dan Rubinstein, deputy district attorney in Mesa County, said the Legislature made substantial changes in how drug-possession convictions are handled a couple of years ago, and it already has led to a dramatic reduction in prison population.
“But the way that this would affect the sheriffs’ budgets is a massive thing that nobody’s really discussed,” Rubinstein said. “It’s not that we’re unwilling to do it; it’s just too fast. We need time to have all of the people involved in the criminal justice system sit down and talk this through.”
He said the state recently lowered some controlled substances in their severity in the law, and that has led to fewer first-time drug users going to state prisons. It’s premature to introduce this measure so soon after that new law has barely taken effect, Rubinstein said.
He also said the county’s own research shows people facing felony convictions are more likely to complete drug treatment programs than those who face misdemeanors.
Although the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a 5–2 vote, the two Republican senators who voted against it said they are troubled by the costs to county jails and questioned if lowering the penalty for such convictions would lead to more misdemeanor charges, which can come with penalties of up to a year in county jails.
Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said he opposed the bill, in part, because there is no provision in the bill that prevents a drug abuser from getting numerous misdemeanors and being able to go through a government-funded drug-treatment program an unlimited number of times. He said Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey was forced to lay off 33 Sheriff’s Department workers last year, but would see his jail costs increase by more than $400,000 a year because of an increase in misdemeanor convictions.
“Methamphetamine is the most dangerous poison that I have ever seen,” King said. “The idea that we can convince someone to actively seek treatment, I think we will see 125 misdemeanor charges for possession of methamphetamine, and I worry that this bill does not address that problem.”
The measure next heads to the Senate Finance Committee because it diverts $2 million in prison savings toward treatment programs. The bill also would eliminate nearly two dozen positions in the Colorado Department of Corrections.