Prosecutor calls corrections bill an ‘abomination,’ will oppose it

A bill that would shift the burden for imprisoning criminals from the state to municipalities is being called an “abomination of a bill” by Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger.

Senate Bill 286, sponsored by Sen. John Morse, D-Colo. Springs, a former police chief of Fountain, was introduced Wednesday and is expected to be heard in committee next week. It would lower penalties for many crimes, reduce some felonies to misdemeanors and eliminate jail time for many other types of criminal activity. The bill could change sentences for drug offenses, property crimes and other felony offenses and revamp the habitual offender statute.

“It’s 44 pages of radicalism,” Hautzinger said. “It looks like it was written by someone in the public defenders office.”

Hautzinger will be among several district attorneys from across the state gathering in Denver today for their monthly conference. Hautzinger said he will make the most of his time on the Front Range and plans to speak out against the bill.

The bill, according to its prime sponsor, is intended to help balance the state budget by cutting spending in regard to prosecution and incarceration.

“In 1985 we doubled our sentencing ranges with an amendment on the floor of the House,” Morse said in an e-mail. “Since then we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the Department of
Corrections, but we have not seen a corresponding decrease in the rate of violent crimes. It is time to redirect our investment from retribution to re-entry. We need to hold offenders accountable, but we need to do so in a way that benefits society instead of in a way that bleeds society of the resources it needs to educate the next generation.” 

The bill is co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder. She and the senator put out a joint media release regarding the bill.

It read in part: “As the General Assembly works through the budget, one thing is painfully clear:

We are spending more money on prisons than pupils in higher education. We allocated $686 million to Corrections in the General Fund in the 2009-10 budget.”

Gov. Bill Ritter was asked for a statement, and his aid, Evan Dryer, issued an e-mail response to The Daily Sentinel.

“As the former district attorney of Denver, Gov. Bill Ritter doesn’t oppose the concept of sentencing reform, but it has to be grounded in evidence-based analysis and it cannot jeopardize public safety,” Dryer wrote. “Proposed reforms also need to be properly reviewed and vetted. In this case the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice would have been the appropriate reviewing body, but the legislation was not run past the commission. That makes it difficult if not impossible for the governor to support it.”

Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey also is opposed to the bill.

“This bill is nuts,” Hilkey said. “It certainly appears to me like somebody is trying to take advantage of the state’s financial troubles to become much more liberal as to how we treat criminals.”

Hautzinger said he is one of two district attorneys in the state who sit on the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Levy and Morse also serve, but never attend, he said. The proposed legislation is an end-run around the committee, Hautzinger said.

Just a month ago, the group agreed that Colorado’s sentencing laws need a top to bottom review, but SB 286 is more of a shotgun blast in a dark room than a comprehensive look at reform, Hautzinger said.

“I am not opposed to the concept of sentencing reform,” Hautzinger said. “(But) there are so many things that are wrong with this bill I can’t even begin to enumerate them.”


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