House panel advances bill softening sentences for drug possession

Sentencing reforms come as Colorado lawmakers consider ways to curb opioid epidemic and reduce prison population

Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center. (Photo by John Herrick)

Update: The House Finance Committee passed the bill on April 8 by a vote of 10-1. It now goes to the Appropriations Committee. 

Colorado lawmakers are moving ahead with drug-possession sentencing reforms as part of a broader effort to curb the opioid epidemic and drive down the state’s prison population.

“We know that addiction is a public health issue,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who is sponsoring the bill. “We need to get people to the right place. And just putting someone in (the Department of Corrections) for simple possession is not doing that.”

The House Judiciary Committee Tuesday afternoon passed the bill, HB-1263, 8-3. 

Possession of highly addictive drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine is a felony under Colorado’s Uniform Controlled Substances Act. The bill would make possession of less than two grams of these drugs a misdemeanor, and would also apply to fentanyl, MDMA, LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. Possession with the intent to sell would still be a felony. 

The reforms come as the state’s 22 prisons reach 99 percent capacity. Driving the prison population growth is a rise in the number of criminal filings in district court, which have more than doubled since 2012.

Drug felons make up the largest share of new admissions to prison, according to data from the Department of Corrections. About 74% of the state’s roughly 20,000 inmates have moderate to severe substance use disorders, according to the Department of Corrections, and about 985 are addicted to opioids. The department offers practically no medication-assisted treatment for people who have an opioid use disorder until their release.

Supporters hope the reforms will help more people get into treatment and prevent more people addicted to drugs with criminal records from having to struggle to find housing and employment. 

Opponents of the bill say county jails will need extra money to house people who would otherwise be sentenced to prison. About 100 people are currently serving prison sentences for class 4 felony (or low level) drug possession, according to the Department of Corrections.

Lawmakers in 2013 passed reforms that allow people facing certain felony drug charges to have them reduced to misdemeanors upon the successful completion of treatment. Many refer to this process as a “carrot” that incentivizes people to complete treatment. Some opponents worry the sentencing reforms would take away that incentive.

Five states have reclassified all drug possession cases from felony to misdemeanor — California, Utah, Connecticut, Alaska and Oklahoma.

The bill comes as Colorado lawmakers work on a number of other criminal justice reforms this session, including eliminating cash bail for low-level offenses and making it easier to release inmates on parole.

The bill now heads to the finance and appropriations committees before it goes to the House for an initial vote.

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