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Criminal Justice Reform

I am a strong supporter of efforts to make Colorado law “smart on crime” by the use of evidence-based strategies to promote public safety and reduce recidivism.  I am a member of the Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice’s Drug Policy Task Force and have been actively working to advance reforms to our drug laws that reduce demand by treating individuals struggling with addiction with compassion and providing them the help they need.  For many drug offenders community-based drug treatment is far more effective than a prison cell.  It costs less and reduces recidivism, saving money and lives.

In 2010 I was one of the sponsors of HB 10-1352, which reduced sentences for possession offenses.  By downgrading possession of small, personal-use amounts of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor we saved millions of dollars in the prison budget.  And we applied those savings to providing drug treatment.  Numerous studies have proven the wisdom of this strategy, and now Colorado is moving in this reform direction.

This week I will be introducing a bill in the Senate that furthers the goals of HB 1352.  This bill is also the work of the Drug Policy Task Force and has been endorsed by the CCJJ.  It streamlines the flow of drug treatment funds to local communities and consolidates three different funding sources for these services.  The bill will also require better accounting and data collection for these services, which will build the case for continuing to invest more in prevention and treatment.

Also this week, I will introducing a bill that also aims to reduce recidivism by providing relief from “collateral consequences.”  People convicted of crimes often find that their punishment doesn’t end when they are released from prison and parole.  We talk about “paying a debt to society,” but that debt goes beyond doing time.  Criminal convictions haunt a person for the rest of their life, making it hard to find housing and employment.  Various state laws impose additional restrictions on former felons.  The deck is stacked against them as they try to reintegrate into society and become productive, contributing members of the community.

Collateral consequences of criminal convictions include the loss of professional occupational licenses, restrictions on access to public housing and public benefit programs, even the loss of the right to adopt a child, vote or own a gun.  Some of these restrictions exist for good reason, but some were enacted under the banner of being “tough on crime” with little or no evidence that public safety is enhanced.  In fact, a leading cause of recidivism is the inability to secure employment or housing.  Collateral consequences often set someone up for failure.  This means more crime, more victims and the need for more prisons.  I’d like less of all those things, please.

There is a solution to this problem.  It takes an individual approach and allows people to request that a court remove certain barriers from their path.  For persons sentenced to probation or community corrections, the bill I am proposing would allow the sentencing court to enter orders to waive collateral consequences so someone can keep their job or housing.  This increases the likelihood they will succeed and not have their probation revoked.  For those being released on parole, the bill creates a process for petitioning the court for this same type of individualized relief, again with the aim of helping someone succeed and not wind up back in the system.

Recidivism is a problem in Colorado.  The “revolving doors” at the entrance to prison return over half of those released back into the system within two years of their release.  Addiction and mental illness are contributing factors to criminal behavior, but prison is expensive and not always the best solution to someone’s problem.  Our criminal justice system should be designed to promote public safety, but punishment often gets emphasized over prevention.  Whether it’s providing drug treatment for those with addictions or help for people returning to the community so they can reintegrate and find a place to live and work, we’ve got a lot of work to do in Colorado.  I’ve enjoyed working on these issues and hope we can maintain the forward momentum in the 2012 session.