Attorney General John Suthers
Attorney General John Suthers

Bill Ritter, John Suthers and endless dithering over sentencing reform

The push to ban the death penalty in Colorado might actually be going somewhere this year -- but the same can't be said for comprehensive sentencing reform. Under pressure from district attorneys and Colorado Attorney General John Suthers (chief apologist for the Owens-era lock-'em-up approach), Democratic lawmakers backed off Senate Bill 286 and pledged to work more closely with Governor Bill Ritter's sentencing commission to come up with a better plan next year.

Or maybe the year after that. Some day, anyway.

Changing the way the state deals with thousands of chronic, low-level offenders, including garden-variety drug addicts and petty thieves, could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year in prison costs -- and have a greater impact on more people than the state's seldom-used death penalty ever will. Ritter made the idea of overhauling sentencing a cornerstone of his campaign -- and, as a former DA himself, he seemed to be the right guy to get something done and stop the alarming budget drain posed by endless prison expansion. But after years of meetings and white papers, precious little of his commission's work has translated into any kind of substantive legislation.

A big stumbling block has been the substantial power wielded by the DAs and Suthers -- a former prison czar himself, who seems to be able to leap tall buildings and bend the ear of editorial boards at the same time. Even in these budget-strained times, nobody wants to appear "soft on crime" -- least of all the Denver Post, which hailed the latest stall-out of reform in this editorial.

True, SB 286 was hardly the ideal vehicle for reform, since it reflected a great deal of input from the defense bar (horrors!) and "not enough" consultation with the prosecutors and Ritter's commission. When it became apparent that the governor himself wouldn't support it, even some of the most vocal supporters of reform, including the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, backed off.

But just how much analysis, debate and dithering is required to fix some of the more obvious and costly deficiencies in the current criminal justice scheme? If a rollback of felony sentencing ranges to pre-1985 levels (before sentences got doubled and tripled in a Reaganesque frenzy) isn't possible, lawmakers should at least get around to some of the most ridiculous aspects of the current system, including the staggering rate of parole revocations that land people back in prison for minor infractions (see my 2006 feature, "Over and Over Again") and the abuse of the habitual-criminal statute, which allows gung-ho prosecutors to put chronic losers away for decades for such bloodcurdling offenses as boosting a few compact discs ("The Punisher").

Getting off the treadmill won't be easy, especially when the backers of sentencing reform seem to cave so easily to prosecutorial posturing. In the absence of legislative leadership, it may be up to Governor Bill to blaze the trail -- but first he has to declare that the time for studying the issue is over.

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