Waller proposes reducing prison time for drug offenses

February 5, 2010

A Colorado Springs lawmaker expects to introduce a bill next week that would cut felony drug-possession sentences while increasing the state’s commitment to treating addicts.

Republican Rep. Mark Waller said the move, spurred by a study from the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, would save the state money while cutting crime.

“We need to take these knuckleheads and get them treatment before they escalate to armed robbery,” Waller, a former prosecutor, said at a gathering of sentencing reform advocates Friday night in Colorado Springs.

The state now houses more than 4,500 drug offenders in its prison system. State prison costs have skyrocketed in recent years, with the tab topping $600 million in 2009.

With the state facing a $1 billion budget shortfall in the fiscal year that starts in July, Democrats and Republicans have been eyeing ways to cut prison costs in a manner that won’t increase crime.

Other states, including Maryland and New York, have figured out how to cut crime and prison costs at the same time, Richard Jerome, with the Pew Center on the States, a nonprofit think-tank, told people at the Colorado Springs gathering.

The easiest way to accomplish those goals, the Colorado commission found, is to overhaul mandatory drug sentences, which can put people behind bars for years for owning or using a relatively small amount of drugs.

Waller’s plan is to give many drug offenders treatment in lieu of stiff prison sentences now mandatory under state law. Some of the money saved by the shorter sentences would go to treatment programs.

Waller’s bill hasn’t been unveiled, but the lawmaker said it has garnered the approval of Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.

It will also likely have a powerful proponent from Colorado Springs in the state Senate. The state study of sentencing reform that led to the bill was mandated in a bill offered last year by Democratic Sen. John Morse, a former police chief who is now the Senate majority leader.

District Attorney Dan May said Friday night that while he may quibble with some details of sentencing reform, he also supports the idea of more treatment and less time for drug offenders.

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