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Breaking the chain gang

Critics from the right and the left preach the evils of tough prison sentences

Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado.
  • Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado.

Colorado's get-tough drug laws, which have helped drive an astonishing increase in the number of prisoners over the past two decades, are bringing together an improbable union of groups demanding reform.

Jon Caldara, executive director of the conservative Golden-based Independence Institute, says that state officials, including Gov. Bill Owens, are ignoring what he describes as a crisis brought on by harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Recently, Caldara -- whose think tank is waging all-out war on Referenda C and D -- commented that the state should release up to 2,000 offenders early.

"Why are we spending $30,000 a year to have them stay in Hotel Colorado?" he asked. "I'm not saying they shouldn't be punished. I'm saying that there are alternatives, like house arrest."

By taking this tactic, Caldara has slipped in with strange bedfellows, including groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. For years, they've argued against stiff laws for nonviolent offenders.

Two to six years

A report released by the Independence Institute earlier this year questioned the state's drug laws, which were strengthened during the 1990s. It found that the number of drug offenders incarcerated in Colorado has risen 400 percent since 1985.

In Colorado, someone possessing more than 8 ounces of pot can get one to three years in prison. Someone who sells any quantity of marijuana can get two to six years.

Such sentences have led the Colorado Department of Corrections' budget to rise dramatically over the last decade. The prison budget for the fiscal year ending in 1995 was $208.5 million -- or $248 million, given an adjustment for inflation. In the fiscal year ending in 2004, it had risen to $469.7 million.

"It is unquestionable that there is a growing movement to re-evaluate the growing problems that have emerged from our drug policies," says Christie Donner, director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. "My experience is that locking people up is not a solution to the problem."

Donner notes there are consequences that those who support tough laws haven't considered. For instance, most prisoners eventually are released, and when they are, they find it hard to pass employment background checks or to get apartments because they are felons. This leaves them broke and with few chances to turn their own lives around.

"We have to do more to reintegrate these people into society," she says.

Jon Caldara, director of the Independence Institute.
  • Jon Caldara, director of the Independence Institute.

New prisons opened over the last decade appear to have provided incentives for the state to find inmate "customers," she notes.

"I think there's more than a grain of truth in that," says George Epp, a former Boulder County sheriff who heads the County Sheriffs of Colorado, an organization that provides training and services to state sheriffs.

Yet Epp disagrees with Donner and Caldara, who argue that it will be a good thing if Referenda C and D don't pass in November, because that could force the state legislature to consider lighter sentences for inmates.

Deaf ears

Sheriffs across Colorado, including El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, are struggling with nearly packed jails. In recent months Maketa, too, has called on local officials to take a closer look at sentencing alternatives.

Yet mental health and substance abuse programs that help keep people out of jails -- and help prisoners rehabilitate -- have seen dramatic cuts, notes Epp. He says he'd like to see more funds allocated to those issues, rather than just have drug offenders released early, because thousands of them have more than one conviction.

But all this talk seems to have fallen upon deaf ears, Epp says, adding that state lawmakers appear intent to stick with the current course.

Mark Salley, a spokesman for Owens, had not returned calls seeking comment as of press time.

But Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, maintains that politicians often find it easier to be tough on crime than to talk about solutions.

"It's not unusual for problems to go unsolved by the politicians that we elected to solve these problems," he says.

Silverstein adds that he doesn't agree with Donner and Caldara that starving the budget will prompt the state to suddenly reform its sentencing laws.

-- Michael de Yoanna

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