Colorado lawmakers consider reducing penalties for drug possession offenses
There may be major changes coming to the way Colorado handles drug possession offenses.
On Tuesday the Colorado House Judiciary Committee approved a bipartisan bill in a split 8-3 vote, which aims to reduce penalties for drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors — a move policymakers hope will prioritize treatment for addiction over punishment.
“Our state cannot afford to continue doling out felony convictions and sending people to prison for drug possession,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, one of four sponsors of the bill, in a statement. “It has not made our community safer, but it has created a whole host of problems for many people and families in our community. Permanently branding drug users as criminals makes it harder for them to access the things they need to get back on their feet, like stable housing and employment.”
Under Colorado’s current laws, possession of any amount of schedule I or II drugs (including heroin, psilocybin, cocaine and more) is a level 4 drug felony, which carries a presumptive punishment of six months to a year in prison along with a mandatory parole period.
If the new bill passes, the penalty for those drug possession charges would be dropped to a level 1 drug misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and up to two years of probation. Additionally, punishments for possession of more than 6 ounces of marijuana would be lowered to a misdemeanor. The bill would also create a county court drug grant program to provide grants to establish misdemeanor drug courts in areas where they don’t already exist. The bill wouldn’t make any changes to charges related to drug distribution offenses.
District Attorney Bruce Brown attended the hearing on Tuesday to voice his support of the bill.
“At its core, as the bill’s language reflects, drug addiction is a medical issue and not a criminal issue,” said Brown. “Where the line is blurred is because the criminal justice system has become the primary system established to deal with what is essentially a medical problem. … While controversial on some level, there’s a consensus at the capital for enacting a bill of this nature. This bill comes on the heels of a radical 2013 change in punishment with respect to drug crimes and possession crimes.”
What Brown is referring to is a senate bill that passed a few years ago that created new sentencing guidelines for offenders convicted of drug felonies with the same goal of prioritizing treatment over punishment. Though, for proponents of reduced penalties, the change hasn’t been a success.
According to a report recently published by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition in January, drug felony case filings have more than doubled from just 7,424 in the state in 2012 to more than 16,547 last year. Statewide, there has been a 123% increase in felony drug case filings in that time, though Summit County and the rest of the Fifth Judicial District remains a huge outlier.
The district — which includes Summit, Lake, Eagle and Clear Creek counties — has seen remarkably consistent felony drug filings over recent years, from 196 in 2012 to just 216 last year. The 10% increase in that time is far and away the lowest in the state with the Sixth Judicial District showing the second lowest growth at 25%. Fifteen of the 22 districts in Colorado saw at least a 100% growth.
“Our district sends the fewest people to prison for drug possession offenses, and has had the lowest rate of growth for filings for drug offenses since I’ve been the district attorney,” said Brown. “That reflects our community preference for treatment over punishment. Regardless of whether or not this bill is enacted, we’ll continue to look for ways to emphasize treatment and make punishment merely a means by which we can coerce people to seek treatment.”
Aside from a general philosophy of treatment first in the area, the district also already boasts three drug recovery court programs in Summit, Eagle and Lake counties.
In addition to prioritizing treatment, the reduction in penalties for individuals convicted of possession would also serve to alleviate crowding in prisons. According to assumptions made by the state legislative council staff, the change would mean about 193 fewer offenders sentenced to the department of corrections each year, along with 166 fewer offenders sentenced to community corrections facilities.
Opponents of the bill say that removing the more severe punishments could reduce drug users incentives to kick their addictions, and that jail sentences in lieu of imprisonment shifts financial burdens from the state to counties.
“I think that we should be looking at drugs as more of an abuse issue rather than a crime,” said Rep. Matt Soper, who voted against the bill during the hearing on Tuesday. “I do think the bill hits on that. The problem is it shifts costs to the counties, and for people who aren’t getting the wakeup call — people going through the system four, five, six times — those people need to be faced with the possibility of going to prison and getting that splash of cold water in the face. At some point you need that mechanism.”
The bill will now advance to the House Committee on Finance, though a hearing hasn’t been scheduled.
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