Sentencing reform bill would cut some prison terms, fund drug rehab

February 23, 2010

DENVER – A Colorado Springs lawmaker says his plan to cut prison sentences for drug users could reduce crime while saving the state money.

The state now houses more than 4,500 prisoners convicted of non-violent drug crimes under a slate of state laws that makes possessing small amounts of drugs or using drugs a felony.

Republican Rep. Mark Waller’s bill would convert most drug possession and use crimes to misdemeanors or lesser felonies under Colorado’s expansive sentencing schemes, cutting sentences by half or more. He would use some of the money saved in prisons to reinvigorate drug treatment programs.

“This is going to save millions of dollars over the years,” he said.

The measure would also increase sentences for drug dealers who sell narcotics to children.

The measure, HB1352, was introduced in the House on Tuesday. It has gained support from influential Democrats and most Republican leaders at the Capitol. It was spawned by a series of meetings last year held by the state’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice after a broader sentencing reform measure was dumped by the state Senate. Lawmakers have requested study on how much the measure would save or cost the state.

Waller said he championed the bill because as a former prosecuting attorney, he can back it with few political consequences.

“This isn’t something the Democrats can do alone because they don’t want to appear soft on crime,” Waller said.

(For a complete list of bills from El Paso County lawmakers, click here.)

Backing Waller is state Attorney General John Suthers, a former district attorney from Colorado Springs, who said the state needs to focus on treating drug addicts.

“I don’t want to fill our prisons with drug offenders,” he said.

Douglas Wilson, who heads the Colorado Public Defender’s office, said the measure is a good idea, but lawmakers must make sure that they keep their promises of enhanced drug treatment. He said drug abuse is a key factor on why people make return trips to prison.

“When you have 60 of every 100 offenders going back to prison within three years, you have a problem,” he said.

The idea of helping drug addicts is attractive to lawmakers, but the cash Waller’s bill could save may be its biggest selling point.

The General Assembly is struggling to close a $1 billion budget shortfall for the fiscal year that starts in July, and even once-sacred institutions like public schools could feel the pain under plans being considered.

Housing prisoners remains one of the most expensive things the state does, with each of the state’s more than 24,000 inmates costing taxpayers more than $30,000 per year.

House Judiciary Committee chairwoman Rep. Claire Levy said Waller’s bill could be a beginning to wider sentencing reforms.

“This is a real turning point,” the Boulder Democrat said.

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