Dealing With Drugs, Part II

Faced with an overflowing prison population and an exploding corrections budget, Colorado legislators took an important step this session that could result in reform of the state’s criminal justice policies. When signed by Gov. Ritter, House Bill 1358 will create the Colorado Criminal and Juvenile Justice Commission, which will be charged with reviewing four specific issues: prevention, alternatives to incarceration, sentencing policies and juvenile justice policies.

The commission will be comprised of 26 members including:

  • executive directors of the departments of Public Safety, Corrections, Human Services, and Higher Education
  • the Attorney General, State Public Defender, chairperson of the Parole Board, and chairperson of the Juvenile Parole Board
  • 4 legislators
  • 2 members appointed by the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court
  • 12 members appointed by the Governor

Department of Public Safety Executive Director Peter Weir spoke Tuesday on KCFR’s Colorado Matters about the commission. Weir described three categories of offenders: violent offenders, drug dealers and drug users. The latter group, he said, “is really a group that I think we can make a difference with.”

Weir said drug users are often given several chances before they end up behind bars, but many appear in front of the court again and again. It’s an indication that probation alone doesn’t work, he said. There needs to be other services, such as drug treatment, that are used in conjunction with probation.

“We have very, very few programs that are addressing both the mental health issues and the substance abuse and the alcohol issues,” Weir said.

In fiscal year 2006, 82 percent of all new inmates in Colorado were moderately to severely in need of treatment for substance abuse and a quarter were in need of mental health treatment. As noted in Part I of this series, Colorado ranks dead last in the percentage of money spent on substance abuse that goes toward treatment and prevention. Without addressing the issues that led to the drug offense, addicts will continue to go through the revolving door of the criminal justice system.

In recent years, efforts to reform drug sentencing were stymied by former Gov. Bill Owens. With overwhelming majorities in 2002, legislators passed Senate Bill 39, which would have reduced the felony classification for possession of a gram or less of some substances and diverted the savings to treatment programs. Owens vetoed the bill.

The following year, legislators again passed a similar measure. When Owens eventually it allowed to become law without his signature, some said a deal had been struck with legislators, whose support the governor needed for a proposal to issue bond-like “certificates of participation” to raise money for a new prison. But Owens shut the door on sentencing reform again in 2004, when he issued a letter to the Joint Budget Committee calling sentencing reform “counterproductive and unwise.”

Now, Gov. Ritter is expected to sign the bill to create the commission that will, in part, address sentencing reform. And after being faced with choosing between funding prisons or funding education, legislators are behind the move.

Read Part I of this series.