The Shifting Drug War

The pendulum is swinging back from stiff mandatory sentences for drug offenses.

Not long ago, Christie Donner was seen as a fringe figure in state politics, advocating unpopular changes in the stern laws that form the centerpiece of Colorado's part in the nation's War on Drugs.

Donner, director of the Colorado Prison Moratorium Coalition, argues that Colorado's prison-building boom has been an expensive mistake. Her belief that Colorado chooses to imprison thousands of drug addicts while failing to adequately fund drug treatment programs is at odds with the rhetoric of politicians who promise to get tough on drugs.

But now Donner is at the center of a campaign to change the drug laws in Colorado to emphasize treatment, rather than prison time, for addicts.

Christie Donner believes the public is tired of jailing drug addicts.
Anthony Camera
Christie Donner believes the public is tired of jailing drug addicts.
State senator Ken Gordon hopes to ease Colorado's drug penalties with new legislation.
State senator Ken Gordon hopes to ease Colorado's drug penalties with new legislation.

"The public doesn't feel it's effective to put drug addicts in prison," says Donner. Just locking up drug offenders for mere possession is "not dealing with drug abuse as a health problem."

"So many people have histories of abuse and untreated mental illness, and they use drugs to cope," she continues. "Why can't we help these people turn their lives around?"

While the number of prison inmates in Colorado has more than doubled in the past decade, to more than 15,000 last year, Colorado spends little to treat drug addicts behind bars or on the streets. Even though an estimated 75 percent of inmates have substance-abuse problems, only half of them receive treatment. Outside of prison, treatment options are even more scarce. Colorado spends less money on substance-abuse treatment than most states; as a result, only 20 percent of those who need treatment receive it.

Today in Colorado, there are 3,226 people in state prisons on drug charges. Of those, 1,714 inmates -- just over half -- were convicted of drug possession. And sentences aren't mere slaps on the wrist. For example, someone arrested with even a tenth of a gram of an illegal drug can be charged with a Class 3 felony, the same as for armed robbery and sexual assault. It costs the state more than $44 million per year just to keep those 1,714 drug users behind bars.

But effective treatment programs can do more than just save money. Some states have found that comprehensive treatment of those arrested on drug charges also reduces the rate of recidivism by 25 to 30 percent. In addition, says state senator Ken Gordon, "If you can get somebody off drugs, they won't commit the ancillary crimes they do to support their habit."

Gordon is sponsoring groundbreaking legislation that would alter the penalties in Colorado for those convicted of possessing less than one gram of an illegal drug. Instead of receiving mandatory prison sentences for a first offense that can range from four to sixteen years, users would be directed into drug treatment programs. The money the state would save could support both public and private treatment programs. Gordon estimates the law would keep a hundred people per year out of state prison, freeing up $2.6 million that could be used to treat hundreds of addicts.

The bill was recently okayed by a joint legislative committee studying criminal sentencing in Colorado and will be considered by the full legislature next year. And lawmakers are expected to pay attention. With prison costs taking up an ever larger share of the state budget, some legislators question whether the enormous amount of money going to pay for the prosecution and imprisonment of drug offenders is being spent wisely. Since the TABOR amendment to the state constitution restricts the growth of the state budget, more money going into prisons means less money for schools, health care and other needs.

"In 1981-82, the corrections budget was $39 million. Now it's $478 million," says Gordon. "The corrections budget has increased at a 15.3 percent rate every year for the last decade. We're incarcerating some people we don't need to."

Gordon worked hard to win support for his legislation from Colorado's district attorneys, a majority of whom endorsed the bill. Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter and Adams County District Attorney Bob Grant both testified in favor of the proposal.

"The main impetus for me is our present inadequate treatment resources," says Ritter. "There are places in this state where there is no treatment available."

Several Republicans on the committee joined Democrats to back the bill, but Gordon still isn't certain he will win the support of a majority of legislators or of Governor Bill Owens. So far, the governor has proved hostile to the idea of changing state drug laws.

"The governor remains skeptical of proposals to reduce sentences for so-called victimless drug crimes," says Dick Wadhams, Owens's spokesman.

Wadhams says it's almost unheard of for someone to receive a prison sentence for a first-time charge of possession. He says most of the people in prison for possession have been arrested more than once and have often committed other crimes, such as burglary, to support their habit.

"It's difficult to be sentenced to prison in Colorado," says Wadhams. "The actual conviction may be for drugs, but there's usually a lot of other things involved as well. The governor doesn't believe that there are people in prison who have been found guilty of possession just one time."

Wadhams says the governor hasn't taken a position on Gordon's bill, but he makes it clear that Owens is wary of the idea of shifting drug-law violators out of prison and into treatment. He says the declining crime rate in recent years is proof that locking people up makes the streets safer.

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