Colo. governor set to sign misdemeanor sentence reform bill

Some are calling it the first significant sentence reform in Colorado in almost 40 years

By Mitchell Byars
Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.

DENVER — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is set to sign a bill that would introduce what some are calling the first significant sentence reform in Colorado in almost 40 years.

Senate Bill 21-271 is set to be signed Tuesday, according to a release from the governor's office, and contains more than 370 pages revamping Colorado's misdemeanor sentencing grid, eliminating some redundant crimes and reclassifying other crimes.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks to the media on May 8, 2019, in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks to the media on May 8, 2019, in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images/TNS)

"I'm thrilled that it passed," said Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty, who is the co-chair for Colorado's Sentencing Reform Task Force. "There had not been a comprehensive review of sentencing in Colorado since 1985. The sentencing statutes have become misaligned, outdated and inconsistent with how they are applied."

Dougherty said one major change is that the sentencing grid was altered so that the incarceration ranges for misdemeanors were reduced, putting Colorado more in line with other states. For instance, Class 1 misdemeanors now carry a maximum jail sentence of one year rather than 18 months.

"Colorado's sentencing ranges were high when compared to other states," Dougherty said. "Now we're in line with what most states have for misdemeanor offenses."

In addition, Dougherty said the bill will help to provide more consistency in sentencing by introducing more uniform guidelines for things like good time earned in jail.

"There had been wide variances in the different jails about rewarding earned time credits," Dougherty said. "If you served time in Boulder County, El Paso County or Arapahoe, in the interest of fairness the day you are released should be the same. Instead, they had people getting out on different days based on their individual policies."

Dougherty said the bill also reduces many redundant crimes and also reclassifies some crimes that Dougherty said were a product of looking at legislation with "common sense."

For instance, introduction of contraband to a jail is currently a felony, whether the contraband was drugs or explosives and weapons. The new bill would make introduction of drugs and alcohol a misdemeanor, while introducing weapons or items for escape would remain felonies.

"I think we'd all agree explosives are more serious than alcohol and marijuana," Dougherty said. "That to me reflects the thoughtful approach here."

In a legislative session in which other criminal justice bills failed, Dougherty said this bill got bipartisan support, which he feels reflects the diverse team of people involved in the criminal justice system that had input on the bill.

Dougherty said prosecutors, defense attorneys, jails, law enforcement agencies and even former inmates all contributed.

"It's really how we want to improve the justice system," Dougherty said. "It really required thoughtful analysis and buy-in from all the people involved. It was important having everybody at the table from the very beginning as opposed to introducing (the bill) and trying to force it through."

Dougherty said the next step this summer for the reform task force will be addressing felonies.

"Colorado ranks in the bottom 10 of offenders coming out of state prison, with 50% back in within three years," Dougherty said. "We're failing the incarcerated individuals, future victims, the community and the taxpayer if we allow that to continue."

Dougherty said one of the focuses will be in providing better clarity on sentencing for felonies in terms of how much time defendants actually serve on any given sentence.

Judges have noted in past years that sentencing has been made difficult by varying release times due to crowding and lack of resources for treatment programs.

"We need to do a lot better, including for the person who is being sentenced," Dougherty said. "That's not how the system should work, so (the Department of Corrections) has been helping us put together a plan. We need to have people getting the programs and help they need while they are incarcerated."
(c)2021 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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