DENVER (AP) – Colorado lawmakers are proposing reduced penalties for some drug possession offenses in a move that supporters say is aimed at ensuring offenders get treatment instead of long prison sentences.
The bill introduced in the Senate Tuesday would drop some offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and represents another attempt by lawmakers to decrease the prison population and cut expenses in the Department of Corrections.
The proposal would require that any possible savings be directed to drug treatment.
Republican Sen. Shawn Mitchell, one of the lawmakers leading the way on the legislation, has spoken publicly about the toll meth addiction has taken on his younger brother and said he wants a more sensible approach against drugs.
“The war on drugs has made government more powerful, citizens less free, and hasn’t helped users or addicts,” Mitchell said. “I want to push a smarter effort against drugs … I want to stop piling people into prisons and stop branding people with a felony for a personal weakness.”
Mitchell said he questioned the government’s handling of drug crimes even before his experience with his brother.
“But I was probably afraid to confront a conservative political base until I saw this problem threaten to ruin my brother’s life,” he said.
The legislation, which has support from both parties, would reduce possession of four grams or less of a scheduled I or II controlled substance, or two grams or less of methamphetamine, from a class 6 felony to a class 1 misdemeanor.
Scheduled I drugs include heroin, LSD, and marijuana. Scheduled II drugs include cocaine, methamphetamine, and some painkillers.
Colorado prosecutors oppose the legislation and say possession of dangerous drugs should be treated seriously and not be labeled as misdemeanor offenses.
Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, said most first-time drug offenders are given deferred sentences, meaning they’ll have their case dismissed if they complete certain conditions such as a drug treatment program. Raynes said he worries the proposed bill might remove an incentive for offenders to complete drug treatment.
“Kind of what keeps people in the program is concerns over getting a felony conviction,” he said.
Supporters argue that the judicial system is overly penalizing addicts who would be better off getting treatment, rather than going to prisons and making the state pay an expensive tab.
“I think that as state budgets have struggled, under that there’s been more energy put into asking ourselves what works to promote public safety,” said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
Donner’s group analyzed data from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice and found that a majority of drug offenders sentenced to prison were convicted of possession charges According to the data, from August 2010 to November 2011, 310 people were convicted on drug possession charges, accounting for about 60 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison during that time. It costs about $32,000 a year to incarcerate someone.
The legislation builds on a law passed two years ago that distinguished drug use and possession from the offenses of manufacturing and distribution. Lawmakers who supported that legislation credit it with helping reduce the state inmate population and they’re lobbying for cuts at prisons as a result.
Donner said another goal is the legislation is to reduce the number of people with felony records who find it difficult to find jobs or housing after they complete their sentence.
“You can overcome addiction, but you can never overcome a felony,” Donner said.
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
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