Colorado drug felonies have doubled since 2012, but Summit County is an exception
March 12, 2018
Felony drug filings have increased sharply across Colorado in the past six years, a spike that has disproportionately impacted women and contributed to the state's rising prison budget, according to a report released Monday by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. The study's findings indicate that drug sentencing reforms designed to keep addicts out of prison have fallen short.
The report also highlights enormous disparities in drug crime trends across the state. While two judicial districts have seen filing increases higher than 200 percent in the past six years, the change in Summit County's district is only one percent — the lowest in the state.
"We've spent years working on this and deeply looking at data and doing our best thinking, so to end up where we are today is shocking to me," said CCJRC executive director Christie Donner. "Not only is it not better, it's actually worse. I don't think any of us saw this coming."
Total Colorado drug felonies have more than doubled since 2012, the report found. Roughly three-quarters of those filings last year were for possession or sharing, while only 14 percent were for distribution. Those cases contributed to a 12 percent increase in Colorado's prison population in the past year alone, including an unprecedented 29 percent spike in the number of female prisoners.
In 2013, the State Legislature passed a bill overhauling drug sentencing laws, prioritizing prison for high-level dealers and encouraging treatment for users. The CCRJC report, drawing on prison statistics and case filing data, concludes that the changes haven't worked.
"Five years ago, the General Assembly came together and agreed that it was time to stop incarcerating people for simple drug possession and reserve our state's limited prison space for violent offenders and high-level dealers," House Judiciary Chair Pete Lee said in a statement. "The 2013 drug sentencing reform legislation was well-intentioned, but it clearly has not had that effect. The Legislature should revisit the state's drug sentencing structure, come up with some new ideas for reaching that original goal, and redouble efforts to steer people struggling with addiction into treatment rather than prisons."
On Wednesday, the House Joint Budget Committee will be considering a $30 million increase in the Colorado Department of Corrections Budget, which is approaching $1 billion for the first time in the state's history. The added money would be used to re-open two closed prisons.
"This is largely based on (prison) population projections, and those are largely based on this huge increase in felony drug filings," Donner said.
While the trends are clear, their underlying causes are not. Felony drug filings have gone up in every judicial district since 2012, but there is extreme variance. The one percent increase in Colorado's Fifth Judicial District — which includes Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties — was practically a rounding error. Of the state's 22 districts, only two others saw increases of less than 40 percent. (No districts saw decreases).
Last fiscal year, there were 197 felony drug filings in the Fifth, compared to 196 in 2012. All years in between had fewer filings, with only 135 in 2014.
That flat trend is a stark contrast to other parts of the state. Colorado's 16th Judicial District, centered on La Junta in the Eastern Plains, saw a 256 percent increase in filings since 2012. Filings in the 12th Judicial District, which includes six counties in southwest Colorado, rose by 205 percent.
District Attorney Bruce Brown said the Fifth's numbers are in line with local statistics gathered by his office. In 2016, drug offenders made up only five and six percent of the Eagle and Summit county jails, respectively. Only four percent of convicted drug offenders were sentenced to prison that year, compared with 11 percent statewide.
"We were way below statewide averages for locking up offenders in prison and locking them up at all in jails," Brown said. "That's consistent with the philosophy of this office and the philosophy of law enforcement in this area. Our primary goal is to drive treatment of inmates."
Brown pointed to Summit County's recovery court, which allows felony drug offenders to avoid prison time by completing probation and substance abuse programs. Some can also have their records cleared or the severity of their charges reduced.
Ultimately, however felony filings stem from arrests, and there are myriad factors that complicate the rise in drug felonies. CCJRC's surprising findings merely identify a problem that will require more rigorous study, Donner said.
"I'm sure it's multiple factors," she said. "Are there more police on the streets simply because local government budgets have rebounded? Is this one of the consequences of the opioid crisis?… there are multiple variables. But I would have never predicted this five years ago."
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