- Adrian Stanley
- Mark Waller
Back when he was a state representative, El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller sponsored 2010's House Bill 1352, a groundbreaking law that reduced sentencing for drug offenses in Colorado, emphasizing drug treatment programs as a supplement or alternative to prison, and pumping savings from reduced sentencing into community-based treatment programs.
Waller, by the way, is a former prosecutor and a Republican.
At the time, Waller says it was thought the bill would save Colorado tens of millions of dollars in incarceration costs over the years, but thus far costs haven't dropped — an outcome he blames on unions in the prison system. Though that frustrates him, he says he's still glad the bill passed: "It's so important for us to be smart on crime rather than tough on crime."
Waller isn't an outlier in the Republican party on this issue these days. Colorado Republicans have been leaders in their own right, and as Rep. Pete Lee has set out to reform the criminal justice system, he's relied heavily on the help and support of Republican colleagues. (The Colorado House has a Democratic majority, but the Senate is controlled by Republicans.)
In what may seem surprising to those who assume law enforcement officials tend to be tough on crime, Lee has also seen support from those charged with enforcing the law. And that's not unusual across the country. The group Law Enforcement Leaders boasts 175 current and former police chiefs, sheriffs, federal and state prosecutors and attorneys general from 50 states as members. The aim of the group: to reduce crime and incarceration by building "a smarter, stronger, and fairer criminal justice system."
Christine Donner, executive director of the Denver-based Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, who has worked closely with Lee on crafting bills, says Waller, Lee and Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, have together made Colorado Springs "a leader on this." Notably, Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain, has also been a sponsor of key legislation.
It helps that Lee chairs the House Judiciary Committee and Gardner, an attorney, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. For his part, Gardner, who has sponsored key criminal justice bills with and without Lee, says he always puts public safety first, but he thinks rehabilitation should be the second priority. It costs a lot to incarcerate people, he notes, which has led him "to try to have what I would refer to as a rational criminal justice system."
Asked if he's surprised that conservative Colorado Springs would be leading the way on something as progressive-sounding as criminal justice reform, Gardner says he thinks some of it is just coincidence. A lot of the city's legislators have the backgrounds to understand the system.
But he also thinks that it's been important that the city's Republican legislators have been willing to sponsor and support these bills.
"It could be a credibility thing," he says. "Who can talk about the issue without being dismissed as another liberal?"
Lee says that when he's shopping around a criminal justice bill he "looks for common ground." And he has different pitches depending on whom he is talking to. For instance, he says, when it comes to one of his signature issues, restorative justice, "to the social conservatives, I talk about how restorative justice promotes individual responsibility and morality.
"To the fiscal conservatives, I talk about how it saves money. To the liberals, I talk to them about how it promotes community ... Restorative justice really does appeal to people all over the political spectrum. The fundamental principle is acceptance of responsibility. I mean, what a totally fundamentally Christian thing is that?"