By Calvin Thompson | Colorado Watchdog
Colorado is spearheading a change in the way drug offenses may be prosecuted, as a bipartisan effort in the Senate launched a bill that could lead to drastic sentencing reforms for drug offenders.
Senate Bill 250, which passed the Senate nearly unanimously last week, and was referred to the House Committee of the Whole on Friday, prioritizes treatment over prison for drug offenders.
Currently, drug charges and violent crimes are all part of the same comprehensive sentencing system, but this legislation separates drug charges. If someone convicted of a felony drug charge completes probation and community based sentencing, the felony charge would be replaced with a Level 1 misdemeanor under the bill.
Another section requires an “exhaustion of remedies” requirement for certain drug offenses. Before someone is sentenced to prison for a drug offense, they must have already participated in several other forms of treatment and sentencing.
This has the potential to remove thousands of people from the prison system, since a significant portion of Colorado’s illegal activity centers around drug offenses. The Drug Policy Alliance has noted that in the United States, $50 billion is spent each year on drug prohibition, about $25 billion on the state level.
The Cato Institute found that Colorado alone spent more than $352 million on drug elimination efforts in 2008, between state and local governments. By contrast, only 19,250 arrests were made for Colorado drug offenses in 2007, just 10 percent of which were for dealing and manufacturing.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Sen. Steve King, the Republican sponsor of SB 250. “It starts to deal with addiction issues and getting them off drugs.”
A study by the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice says the legislation would save Colorado $5 million
next year in prison costs if passed, and would also put drug offenders back in the community, where it is easier to break drug addiction.
“…From a policy making perspective, it is important to recognize that the increased use of imprisonment eventually results in diminishing returns,” the CCJJ found in one of their studies. “The reason for this is simple: locking up more and more people eventually leads to the incarceration of less serious offenders. When that happens, costs increase without a commensurate increase in public safety.”
King said that over time the focus on treatment instead of incarceration could also work to limit the supply side of the drug industry. By helping people overcome their addictions, drug dealers will lose clients, and the drug-dealing business may start to wither.
“You’re also dealing with supply and demand,” he said. “You just take away the market.”
In spite of largely bipartisan support, the bill does have its critics. Mike Krause, director of the Justice Policy Initiative at the Independence Institute, said that while the bill is a start, it should go further.
He recommended that instead of allowing offenders to reduce their felony charges to misdemeanors, drug charges such be classified as misdemeanors from the start.
Some lawmakers pushed such a bill last year, but it failed in the legislature.