Local law enforcement leaders urge residents to oppose criminal reform bill
The bill would set new rules for when peace officers can arrest offenders
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional examples of exceptions in the bill.
Law enforcement leaders around Colorado’s 5th Judicial District penned an open letter to residents in the area asking them to oppose a recently introduced bill in the state Senate.
In February, Democratic sponsors Sen. Pete Lee and Rep. Adrienne Benavidez introduced Senate Bill 21-062, a measure targeted at deflating the state’s incarcerated population and preventing law enforcement agents from making arrests for certain offenses.
The bill would essentially prohibit peace officers from arresting anyone based solely on alleged traffic offenses, petty offenses, misdemeanors and lower-level felony and drug offenses. The bill also prohibits courts from issuing monetary bonds for those types of offenses.
There are exceptions built into the bill, such as if the offender is a safety risk or shows a clear willingness to reoffend. Arrests can also be made for crimes related to victim rights, unlawful sexual behavior, illegal possession of a firearm, or threats against a school in addition to others.
More severe crimes such as murder, kidnapping and other violent acts wouldn’t be subject to the proposed law. By comparison, alleged offenders might receive summons and be let go for crimes like burglary, motor vehicle theft and identify theft, among others.
Proponents of the bill say it’s a step toward a more just and equitable criminal justice system.
“I think one of the key components of this bill is it really holds true to the principle that we all honor, which is individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” said Denise Maes, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which supports the bill. “So what this bill says, basically, is that we have been putting too many people in jail for too long, and we need to find a different way. We’re no safer putting a whole bunch of people in jail, and this really says, ’For nonviolent offenses, where you present no risk to the public, you shouldn’t be put in jail.’
“If you are arrested, you should be released on your own recognizance as opposed to money bail. Money bail only keeps the poor people in, whereas those that can afford the tolls get out. … They committed the same crime, the same way, the same day, and yet one goes free and the other one stays locked up.”
Maes pointed to widespread efforts during the pandemic to reduce jail populations as proof that it can be done effectively. She noted that while there was a spike in crime rates in some areas of the state over the past year, it represents no correlation or causation to decreased incarceration.
But there is also widespread opposition to the bill, including among law enforcement agencies in the 5th Judicial District. Late last month, law enforcement leaders throughout the district — which includes Summit, Lake, Clear Creek and Eagle counties — penned an open letter to the community urging residents to join them in opposing the effort. Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons was among the signees, along with the chiefs of police departments in Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco, Silverthorne and Blue River.
The letter notes that while there are some positives offered in the bill, the group collectively believes it would have a negative impact on residents around the state in its current form. The concern is that switching to a blanket policy on when arrests can and can’t be made doesn’t allow officers to jail individuals they feel might pose a risk to the community.
“What’s important is an officer retains his or her discretion, on a misdemeanor or a felony, when making these criminal arrests on whether that person should be going to jail, whether they’re a risk to society, to go before a judge and make sure there’s probable cause and have a bond hearing and go through the proper procedures,” FitzSimons said. “This bill removes all of that.”
The County Sheriffs of Colorado, which previously took a neutral stance on the bill, officially came out in opposition earlier this month. In a letter to Lee, the group’s Executive Director Amy Nichols wrote that while efforts to restrict jail intake during the pandemic were made, there was also “disturbing trends” in crime increases across the state. She went on to write that any attempts to codify arrest standards should be further researched before changes are made.
“The long-term impacts of codifying arrest standards are unclear as this method was implemented during a state of emergency,” the letter reads. “Ideally, these types of actions would be well-studied, evidence based and normalized for understanding the impact outside of a pandemic response.”
The bill has been referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee, but a hearing on the bill hasn’t been scheduled, according to the Colorado General Assembly website.
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