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Run-on sentencing

State reformers struggle to find momentum, even as incarceration costs handcuff the budget



It took a single legislative amendment in 1985 to double the prison sentences for Colorado felons. Other laws created "mandatory minimums" for certain crimes or stiffened penalties for the ones thought to show "extraordinary risk."

Going the opposite direction hasn't been as easy, even with prison costs helping to crush the state budget. Last spring, legislators balked at a wide-ranging proposal to cut sentences for many nonviolent crimes, instead passing a law requiring the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to examine the matter.

But the 27-member group's report, released in late November, only recommends minor changes to sentencing for drunk driving or escaping from detention. On Friday, Dec. 11, the panel will vote on recommending other possible changes to drug sentencing laws, including separating the crime of simply possessing a few grams of a drug from the one of getting ready to sell it.

Regardless, don't expect big headlines from the group's work. Doug Wilson, the state's public defender and a commission member, sounds a wry note of frustration when asked to talk about its progress so far.

"Hold on a minute," he says when reached by phone Monday, coming back moments later with an explanation: "I had to roll my eyes."

In the commission's 96-page report, which was greeted with deafening silence, the most notable recommendation could be this: People convicted of simple charges who walk away from halfway houses and the like should not be treated as harshly as the handful who actually escape from jails and prisons.

As for what to do with extraordinary-risk crimes and other mandatory sentencing requirements? Two words: "Further study."

"As far as I can tell," Wilson says, "we've addressed some low-hanging fruit."

Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, co-sponsored last session's proposal to shorten sentences, and is one of four legislators on the commission. He says reform is essential — "there's no evidence that longer sentences protect public safety at all," he says — and sees the commission's work, slow as it may be, as the best way to achieve it.

Rep. Mark Waller, a Colorado Springs Republican who recently joined Morse and Co., says he thinks the commission is making "a real attempt to reduce sentences." That could be useful for nonviolent drug offenders, he adds, but he's still waiting to hear what alternatives to prison could help them recover.

And that's what Wilson calls the "ultimate Catch-22": Prisons cost a fortune to run, but they're judges' main option for sentencing. Developing treatment and job programs might ultimately save money, but there's no cash to get them started.

The bill Morse sponsored this year, which Wilson backed, was supposed to solve that problem. It proposed using some money saved by shortened sentences to pay for programs aimed at reducing the number of people getting out of prison only to go right back.

Current proposals are less ambitious. One, supported by Waller, would eliminate a mandatory five-day jail sentence for anyone caught driving with a suspended license. (It wouldn't touch the stiffer penalties for those whose licenses were suspended for drunken driving.)

Wilson says he's heard grumbles that even this idea could be argued over at Friday's meeting, as could proposals for changing drug sentencing laws. He offers a grim prediction: "It's going to be a big pissing match."

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