Drug Offender Sentencing Reforms

The 2012 legislative session marks my third consecutive year of sponsoring bills recommended by the Drug Policy Task Force of the Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice.  This year I’m carrying SB 104 to streamline the funding of community-based drug treatment programs and increase the accountability and data collection for how resources are being expended.  This builds upon the bills I’ve helped pass in previous sessions.

In the summer of 2009, shortly after my election to the Senate, I was appointed to the Drug Policy Task Force of CCJJ.  This group was created to advise the CCJJ on sentencing reforms specific to drug offenders.  I was one of three legislators appointed to the Task Force, along with treatment professionals, prosecutors, law enforcement and defense attorneys.  This Task Force has been one of the most active and prolific of all those created by CCJJ.

In 2010, I was the the Senate sponsor of HB 10-1352.  Rep. Mark Waller (R-Colorado Springs) and Sen. Shawn Mitchell (R-Broomfield) were co-sponsors of this CCJJ recommended legislation.  This bill began a new chapter in how addiction is viewed by our criminal code.  By recognizing addiction as a medical disorder, HB 1352 began a transformation in our law.  HB 1352 lowered sentences for many drug use and possession offenses, and allocated the resulting savings from the prison budget to community-based drug treatment.  The fiscal analysis for HB 1352 projected that over its first five years the bill would shift $55 million away from the Department of Corrections and instead invest these funds in addressing drug addiction.  This shift in resources will promote public safety, save money and save lives.

In 2011, we followed up with HB 11-1064 to create a presumption of parole for people in prison sentenced for drug offenses under the old law, pre-HB 1352.  The goal was to move low-level drug offenders out of prison and into community-based drug treatment programs funded through HB 1352.  Although there were only a few dozen people still in prison that were eligible for this presumption of parole, this was a fairness issue to attempt to apply HB 1352 retroactively.

Also in 2011, the Drug Policy Task Force recommended changes to the use of habitual offender sentencing laws for low-level drug possession.  The habitual offender law increases prison time for repeat offenders.  SB 11-096 made it inapplicable to drug possession offenses, shortening sentences and making it more likely that people with addictions will get treatment.  For someone with an untreated drug addiction, is it really surprising that they’ve committed multiple drug offenses?  Instead of harsh sentencing, SB 96 continued in the effort to save money and save lives.

SB 12-104 is an important next step.  It combines the savings from HB 1352, SB 03-318 (an earlier drug sentencing reform by Sen. Ken Gordon that also reallocated funding away from prisons in favor of treatment), and the revenue from the drug offender surcharge.  It makes these funds flow in a manner that is “efficient, effective and elegant,” to quote Gov. John Hickenlooper.  Instead of three different allocation processes, SB 104 efficiently combines these into one.  Instead of not knowing exactly how the dollars are being spent and whether treatment programs produce the results we want, SB 104 effectively gathers data to prove that we’re on the right track.  And SB 104 is elegant because it purposefully furthers an evidence-based approach to being smart on crime.  It should set the stage for further reforms.

For related posts, see Criminal Justice Reform and Collateral Consequences.