Panel OKs lesser penalties for some drug offenders

DENVER — Nonviolent drug offenders could have their felony convictions tossed if they complete their community sentencing and stay out of trouble under a bill that won unanimous approval in a Senate committee Monday.

The measure, SB250, was touted as a complete rewrite of the state’s drug-offender laws by its main sponsors, Sens. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, and Pat Steadman, D-Denver.

The two men said the bill allows prosecutors to get convictions for serious drug offenders, while offering alternatives to lesser ones to help reduce recidivism rates.

The measure also is designed to help dissuade minor drug offenders from becoming major ones.

“They can avoid having a lot of the collateral consequences that come with having a felony conviction,” Steadman said. “This provides a powerful incentive for offenders to stick with the program and successfully complete their probationary period.”

The measure stems from a controversial bill from last year that prosecutors, including those from Mesa County, objected to because it would have done away with felony convictions for drug users, replacing them with misdemeanors.

Last year, Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger and one of his deputies, Daniel Rubinstein, argued that removing the felony convictions altogether took away incentive for convicted drug offenders to mend their ways.

As a result, the two men, along with other prosecutors in the state, persuaded Steadman to turn last year’s bill into a study of the problem by the Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice, on which King is a member.

Witnesses testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee praised Rubinstein for working with the CCJJ in drafting the measure.

“It’s a paradigm shift in how we deal with drugs and how we attempt to separate users/addicts and dealers/manufacturers,” Thomas Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council told the committee.

“The current system is not doing it right,” added Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson, another CCJJ member. “We need to do something different, and SB250 gives us that opportunity.”

But while the committee approved the measure on a 5–0 vote, not everyone who testified on it favored the idea.

Denver District Attorney Mitchell Morrissey said one provision in the bill was particularly troublesome to him.

“Drug dealing is one of the most deliberate and intentional crimes someone can engage in,” Morrissey said. “People that intentionally sell this stuff (who) are killing our kids on our streets do not deserve the kind of break this bill gives them. They’re making an awful lot of money off the misery of people that are addicted to these horrible substances.”

The bill heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee for more discussion.


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