Prison or counseling? Lawmakers introduce bill to reform sentences for drug users

Peter Marcus, Denver Daily News Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lawmakers are again questioning whether to either treat drug users with community-based counseling, or send them to prison for long sentences.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers yesterday unveiled House Bill 1352, which would reduce the charge for simple possession for most drugs from a class 6 felony to a class 1 misdemeanor. Simple possession would be defined as four grams, instead of one gram in all cases except for with methamphetamine. In the case of meth, simple possession would be defined as two grams or less.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, could potentially lower simple possession sentences for those who are sent to prison from as many as six years in prison to 18 months, Waller said at an afternoon news conference yesterday attended by Republican Attorney General John Suthers, as well as members of the law enforcement and drug treatment communities.

Some supporters believe the bill would save the state money on prison costs citing the statistic that it costs the state $30,000 per year per prisoner Ń and that the saved money could be used for community-based drug treatment programs. Lawmakers, however, did not have a cost-saving figure yesterday, stating that they are waiting for the fiscal note on the bill.

“It’s time to switch our focus from framing the debate as being ‘tough on crime’ to being ‘smart on crime,’ said Waller. “Sending non-violent drug offenders to prison is not the best use of our public safety dollars. That money could be used more effectively by providing treatment and stopping the revolving door we have on our prisons.”

The bill would also stiffen mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers who sell drugs to children.

The legislation stems from recommendations made by the Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice. A more comprehensive sentencing reform bill sponsored by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, was passed last year. Levy said yesterday that while last year’s bill was not as focused, it did help the CCJJ to make its recommendations for crafting HB 1352.

“We’re seeing the beginning of a whole new approach in Colorado to try to use our resources more effectively to save those $30,000-a-year prison beds for the offenders who we need to lock up and keep away from society, and use the less expensive community-based alternatives for those who can be handled in the community,” said Levy.

Unlike sentencing reform bills of years past, HB 1352 has a broad spectrum of support, including the attorney general, prosecutors, defense attorneys, Republicans and Democrats. Lawmakers are optimistic that the wide support will lead to the bill’s passage.

Suthers expressed doubt that the bill would actually save the state much money, but said he supports the intention of the legislation.

“I’m not so sure how much money this bill is going to save there aren’t a whole lot of first-time drug users or possessors in the Colorado Department of Corrections,” he said. “I’m here in support because the message is correct that our emphasis with drug users and possessors should be treatment.”