“The Year of the Criminal” — that’s what I recently dubbed this year’s legislative session on the floor of the Senate as we debated a measure to allow young adults convicted of murder to participate in a parole program intended for juveniles.
It troubles me that this was just one of many misguided attempts at criminal justice “reform” that will make communities across the state less safe. This session, Democrats in the General Assembly proposed legislation to limit the ability of law enforcement to respond to violent protesters, reduce capacity for juvenile offenders in the Department of Corrections by 40%, and automatically seal arrest records for certain felonies and misdemeanors.
The hallmark of the Democrats’ criminal justice agenda this session was Senate Bill 62, introduced by Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, which would have restricted the ability of law enforcement officers to make arrests and instead issue summonses to suspects, even if they were suspected of committing certain felonies.
The bill also sought to eliminate cash bonds for many categories of crimes, and it directed sheriffs across our state to keep jail populations “as low as possible.” In 2020, we saw a 3.9% increase in overall crime; murder and manslaughter increased 29%, aggravated assault by 17%, and robbery 6.5%. At a time when crime is on the rise, Democrats seem determined to incentivize offenders to continue to commit crimes at an alarming rate.
Met with overwhelming resistance from their constituents, Democrats were forced to kill Senate Bill 62 and introduce a watered down version of the measure at the last minute, Senate Bill 273, that nonetheless would have seriously hampered the ability of law enforcement to fight crime.
Ultimately, House Republicans were joined by two House Democrats who broke with their party to defeat that bill as well. We should applaud their independent thinking at a time when special interest groups and a small group of “activists” on the left are determined to see their misguided vision of justice enacted into law at the expense of public safety.
One of my colleagues in the Senate described House Bill 1209, the expansion of the juvenile parole program to young adults, as a bill designed to provide “hope and opportunity” to inmates. As a former law enforcement officer and sheriff of Weld County, I couldn’t disagree more with that characterization of our criminal justice system. Criminal justice is about the correction of injustice, and it is about recognizing and correcting the wrongs done to victims. The pro-criminal, pro-inmate, and anti-victim agenda advanced by Democrats this legislative session severely undermines this vital institution in our society.
While I fear that the actions of the General Assembly this legislative session will only serve to undermine the purpose of our criminal justice system and incentivize even higher rates of crime, I acknowledge that reform is needed.
This session, I was proud to work with my Democrat colleagues to advance sensible legislation that levies stiffer penalties on bias-motivated crimes, assists inmates in acquiring state-issued identification, and implements additional measures to hold irresponsible law enforcement officers accountable to the people they serve. When Democrats and Republicans come together with law enforcement and communities to craft criminal justice reform, these are the kinds of sensible solutions we can achieve.
When we talk about criminal justice reform, the priorities should be clear: public safety and the rights of victims. I regret that my colleagues on the other side overlooked these principles, choosing instead to follow the drumbeat of radical activists; their actions this session will have grave consequences for public safety.
In the next legislative session, my last, I will find opportunities to advance sensible criminal justice reforms, but my highest priority will continue to be safe communities and, most importantly, justice for victims.
John Cooke, a Greeley Republican, represents Senate District 13 in the Colorado General Assembly and is the Senate’s assistant minority leader. He previously served as Weld County sheriff.