Large fentanyl bust from July in Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs police arrested two men after 2,000 pounds of fentanyl were seized at Austin Bluffs Plaza Liquor store Monday, July 11.

Data shared by local free enterprise think tank organization Common Sense Institute shows Denver and surrounding cities continue to record high crime rates.

Car theft in Denver is second-highest in the nation, and three other Colorado cities rank in the top 10, according to the Common Sense Institute.

Indeed, car thefts are on track to exceed 48,000 this year, according to the group's 2022 Crime Study.

Other crimes that continue to rise include arson, robbery and vandalism, says the study, which cites FBI statistics.

"It is very difficult to comprehend Colorado, the Colorado I grew up in, ... hosting four cities in the Top 10 for all these crime rates," George Brauchler, the former District Attorney for Colorado's 18th Judicial District and one of the report's authors, said at a news conference on Monday.

The study squarely blames "criminal justice reform," as the culprit for the rise in crime, saying its advocates made significant inroads in the past few years in pushing for measures, notably "decriminalization" of a range of crimes, reduction in punishments and "decarceration."

"The results of these actions have had a serious and lasting impact on Colorado communities, resulting in increased crime and a decrease in public safety," the study says.

The assessment is not new.

The Common Sense Institute released a similar study in December 2021 and reached the same conclusion. The authors of the 2021 report, who also included Brauchler, directly trace the steep climb in Colorado's crimes to the state's "criminal-friendly" public policy. Brauchler described that assessment "undeniable."

Supporters of the harm reduction approach counter that crime has many causes and argue that the policies approved by General Assembly are so new they haven't had the time to take effect yet. State Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs, for example, earlier insisted that the "lock up everybody" mentality has a much longer track record of failing communities, victims and families.

Others argue doubling down on "tough-on-crime practices" would be a mistake, since they cause "intergenerational harm, financial loss and damage to Colorado’s families." Causes of crime, they add, are multi-varied, including housing insecurity, job loss, opioid addiction and shuttering of after-school programs.

In the latest report, the authors highlight the ongoing fentanyl crisis, noting that, in the first five months of 2022, law enforcement agencies had seized more fentanyl "units" than all of last year.

But the 2 million "units" seized is a drop in the bucket, said Mitch Morrissey, a former district attorney for Colorado's Second Judicial District.

"Last year, it killed, on average, three Coloradoans a day. That number is going to be up around four (this year)," Morrissey said. "There was an attempt to change the law around fentanyl and make it a serious felony offense that failed to a degree."

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He was referring to the Colorado lawmakers passing House Bill 1326, which became law in July.

Among other things, the measure makes it a felony to possess more than 1 gram of any substance containing fentanyl, carfentanil, benzimidazole opiate or analogs of those substances. The criminal penalty increases above 4 grams. Under 1 gram, possession of those substances is a misdemeanor. The bill allows defendants charged with that new felony to argue to a judge or jury that they didn't know they possessed fentanyl, as the drug has contaminated much of the drug supply, and users of other substances — meth, cocaine, heroin, pills — often don't know they're taking or buying fentanyl. If they successfully do so, an ensuing conviction would be for a instead of a felony.

The bill also sets sentencing parameters for people convicted under this new felony charge, which include a fentanyl education program and may include a treatment program. It also allows people convicted under this charge to apply to have their records sealed earlier than would be possible under other drug felonies.

The bill includes a number of provisions related to substance-use assessments and treatment in correctional facilities. It requires community correctional facilities to develop protocols for withdrawal management, ensure medically appropriate care and provide a referral if needed, including for medical detox. By July 1, 2023, they're required to begin providing medication-assisted treatment — considered the gold-standard way to treat opioid-use disorders. If they can't offer MAT, the programs must help inmates assess MAT providers in the community, and the program has to submit a report to the state describing the barriers preventing it from providing MAT itself.

The bill also requires a number of studies and monitoring reports, often about its own effects. For instance, it requires tracking of cases involving distribution and resulting in death.

Morrissey focused on the provision that fact people caught with less than 1 gram only face a . He said fentanyl is far more likely to kill younger people than older ones, arguing that policymakers must take the drug more seriously.

Provisional data released by the Centers for Disease Control show that 1,043 Coloradans died from a synthetic opioid overdose in 2022.

The CDC data is valid as of April this year. More up-to-date numbers are unavailable.

Brauchler warned fentanyl could kill 1,500 Colorado residents this year.

"There are two things that are true about crime and criminals. One is they're like water, and they go to the places of least resistance," he said. "But the second thing we know about criminals is this. They're not dumb."

Morrissey said he's hopeful the state homicide level doesn't break records, as it appears on track to do.

Brauchler echoed Morrissey's frustrations and said policymakers should begin making data-driven decisions.

"When we give (the data) to them because they don't like the answer, they pooh-pooh the report, or they pooh-pooh the data," he said. "Let's focus on getting as much good data as possible to really make good policy decisions."

The report is not entirely bleak.

Some crimes declined, such as fraud, which dropped by 61%. Common Sense Institute officials attribute the decline to the end of COVID-19 relief programs, many of which were attacked by fraudsters.

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