Keep this ‘reform’ locked up for good

If you’re one of the many Coloradans who think we need to reform our sentencing laws for crimes committed in this state, join the club.

That’s why the state Legislature created the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice two years ago. It’s why dozens of people — prosecutors, law-enforcement personnel and others involved in criminal justice, from across the state and with very different political views — are working with the commission right now.

But if you think a massive bill introduced in the Legislature last week to change sentencing laws is a good reform, or that it will help the state deal with the current budget crisis, you’re way off track.

Senate Bill 286 was introduced by a number of Democratic lawmakers, most of whom also supported the bill two years ago to create the criminal justice commission. The two prime sponsors, Sen. John Morse and Rep. Claire Levy, are actually members of the commission.

But, rather than wait for the commission to develop a consensus package of sentence reforms, they opted to drop their own reform bomb on the legislative table.

As a story by The Daily Sentinel’s LeRoy Standish made clear last week, Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger is vehemently opposed to the bill, which he called “an abomination.”

Hautzinger’s not alone. The Colorado District Attorney’s Council also has come out strongly against the bill. And, Gov. Bill Ritter, a former district attorney himself, has said through a spokesman that because the reforms weren’t first reviewed by the criminal justice commission, he could not support it.

So what’s wrong with SB 286? Plenty.

First is the implication that it will somehow help with the current state budget problems. The sponsors of the bill have mentioned the current budget problems in discussing the bill, without claiming it offers a short-term budget fix. Others have done so, however. But even if all of the reforms were enacted tomorrow, it would be several years before shorter sentences had an impact on prison populations.

Additionally, proponents of the bill such as Morse have noted that the state significantly increased sentences in 1985. But Morse claimed, in a e-mail to the Sentinel, “We have not seen a corresponding decrease in the rate of violent crime.”

That, says Hautzinger, is “palpably untrue.” Federal crime statistics show the rate of violent crime per capita in Colorado has dropped substantially since 1985, even as spending on the state’s criminal justice system has increased.

But much of the DAs’ objections to SB 286 — and ours — is that it substantially reduces sentences for a variety of crimes for which sentences shouldn’t be cut:

•  The bill reduces the number of years in prison an inmate can receive for the lowest four classes of felonies.

•  It eliminates extraordinary-risk sentencing for all felonies. Because of that and other changes, the maximum possible sentence for a first-degree assault involving a weapon would drop from 32 years to 20 years, Hautzinger said.

•  Sentences for people who escape from prison or from a criminal corrections facility would be reduced. The legislation specifically says there can be no mandatory additional jail or prison time for somebody escaping while in custody, jail or prison.

• There could be no prison sentence for a probation violation unless a new crime was committed, no matter how poorly someone was doing meeting his or her probation requirements.

• Habitual criminal charges could only be filed for crimes of violence. Those who commit multiple robberies, burglaries, are engaged in child pornography and even commit multiple sexual assaults that don’t result in serious bodily harm could not be charged as habitual criminals.

Colorado does need to reform its sentencing, and things like shorter sentences for nonviolent drug crimes make sense.

But SB 286 goes too far with too little thought of the consequences on public safety. The bill ought to be locked away forever.


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