With half of the 2021 session in the books, the Colorado legislature has shown an undeniable commitment to hastily lowering jail and prison populations … not by reducing criminal conduct, but by reducing the consequences for criminal conduct. Time and again, a one-party controlled legislature has attempted to enact radical measures to address criminal justice issues on which there could be consensus solutions, if only they acted with common sense.
This year some Colorado lawmakers are seeking to keep offenders from being arrested, to minimize the sentences for criminal conduct, and to wipe away the consequences for repeated criminal conduct.
The concern that a “school to prison pipeline” may exist in Colorado did not result in a comprehensive investigation of the current juvenile justice system involving experts from across the spectrum of interests. Instead, sponsors of Senate Bill 182, a reckless bill that would have converted schools across the state into free-crime zones by decriminalized most criminal acts if they take place on school property, was quickly withdrawn only after the response to Dan Caplis’ column in the Denver Post last week. Except for the swell of bipartisan opposition–once its extreme terms were brought to the public’s attention–SB 182 would have effectively placed School Resource Officers behind glass with a sign that read “break only in case of mass shooting.”
There are several other lesser-known bills progressing under the gold dome that appear destined to become law, which also prioritize offenders over victims and public safety. Each bill seeks to reduce the consequences for criminal conduct in our neighborhoods.
Nobody should remain in jail pending charges merely because they are too poor to post even a minimal bond. However, the progressives in the legislature went overboard again. Senate Bill 62 is the adult equivalent of the now-defeated SB 182. As I wrote several weeks ago, the ACLU-drafted bill prohibits arrests for many of the crimes that make up our current and well-documented lawless tsunami, including car theft, burglaries, riots, destruction of private property, theft of up to $100,000, and many more. Those offenders would be given mere summonses — like traffic tickets — to appear in court, which they could then skip up to three times before the court imposes a monetary bond. It is not fair to call SB 62 a “get out of jail free” card. It is a “stay out of jail free” card.
If the legislature cannot keep criminals from being arrested and convicted, it seeks to reduce the sentences for convicted criminals’ violent conduct. House Bill 1209 seeks to treat violent young-adult criminals like they are juveniles.
Our law trusts the judgment of eighteen to twenty-year-olds to join the military, win the Medal of Honor, consent to any medical procedure, waive their constitutional rights, get married, buy a house, and vote for every single elected office. They are adults. That is, unless they commit second-degree murder, aggravated robbery, rape, or many other violent and repeated felonies. HB 1209 would make these young adults eligible for a program that would drastically reduce their constitutional sentences.
Keep in mind that all truly reformed convicts (the ones whose cases are being used as examples to justify this sweeping bill) already can have their judge-imposed sentences recused or even eliminated by Colorado’s governors–who have near-limitless clemency powers–with no change in our laws. Unsatisfied that this drastic fire-sale on violent crime sentences would apply only to future crimes, the bill applies retroactively, to cases that went to trial or resulted in plea bargains.
Undoing past sentences in this manner would break promises made to victims that their victimizers would serve the sentence they earned. No matter. This progressive legislature is not focused on the integrity of the system or past promises to victims. It is focused on offenders. This bill provides “hope” to violent offenders by betraying promises made to victims.
Senate Bill 124 reduces sentences for felony murder from life without parole to potential parole eligibility after only eight years of prison.
It’s rumored that some lawmakers are planning to offer a bill — midway through the legislative session — that would cut the sentences for the most serious misdemeanor crimes in half, reducing the maximum punishment for conduct like assault, unlawful sexual contact, and others to 364 days. Making the punishment just under a year would help offenders who are immigrants avoid deportation for their crimes.
In addition to preventing arrests and reducing sentences, the legislature wants to hide from employers, landlords, state and local government agencies, neighbors and the public the criminal histories of the most prolific convicted lawbreakers in Colorado. This bill is not about “banning the box” or allowing someone who made a single mistake to move on from it — a narrowly focused bill to help Coloradans get past mistakes would likely garner broad support, including from me.
Instead, in the extreme fashion that has come to characterize this legislature, House Bill 1214 creates a scheme to permit a repeatedly convicted criminal to hide from public view up to three separate felony convictions and five separate misdemeanor convictions. It takes real and repeated effort to amass three separate felony convictions in Colorado. We call those people “career criminals.” This bill provides a vehicle for three-time convicts of burglary, drug distribution, and identity theft, to claim they “have not been criminally convicted” when they apply to rent your house or to be a teller at your local bank.
Whatever legitimate issues can be addressed to improve our criminal justice system, this legislature has again proven that one-party control results in radical, extreme “solutions.” Elections have consequences. For Colorado, one of those consequences is the burning down of our criminal justice system and the tortured redefining of “justice.”
George Brauchler is the former district attorney for the 18th Judicial District. A version of this originally appeared in the Denver Post.
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