Colorado Attorney General John Suthers is currently in Washington, D.C. for U.S. Supreme Court hearings on the Affordable Care Act. But in his absence, his office registered his objections to Senate Bill 12-163, which would, among other things, make possession of meth a misdemeanor rather than a class-six felony. However, a supporter of the measure thinks his criticism is off-base.
Suthers is chairman of the Colorado Methamphetamine Task Force, which unanimously voted to oppose the bill during a March 23 meeting. Why? According to an AG's office release, the legislation, which would cover other Schedule I and Schedule II drugs on top of meth, "seeks to solve a problem that largely does not exist: first-time drug offenders being sentenced to prison. The legislation instead would only eliminate prison sentences for a small percentage of offenders.
"State statistics show that 51.71 percent of those charged with a class-six felony drug possession are given a deferred judgment, which permits a defendant to avoid the effects of a felony conviction by completing a period of supervision and treatment," the release continues. "The high success rate of offenders each year is motivated almost exclusively by the desire to avoid having a felony conviction on their records. By removing this motivation and making the sanction a misdemeanor, fewer people will engage in treatment or successfully address their substance abuse issues."
These arguments don't persuade Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, as well as a strong supporter of SB 163, a bipartisan bill sponsored in the Senate by Democrat Pat Steadman and Republican Shawn Mitchell.
"We've been working on drug policy reform for over a decade," Donner says, "and this seemed to be the next logical step -- to really get serious about redesigning our approach with regard to low-level drug offenders convicted of drug possession by lowering the sentences, capturing the cost-savings from corrections and investing it into treatment. And that's all this bill does. It isn't looking at making any changes to drug distribution laws or anything like that.
"Research is really clear that treatment is a much better strategy to reduce addiction, and the crimes associated with addiction, than putting someone into prison," she adds. "And there's actually no research that supports the position that threatening someone with a felony conviction is a motivator for them to stay in treatment. Addiction, by definition, is to continue to do a specific behavior -- in this case, using illegal drugs -- despite negative consequences. So the position is actually counter-intuitive. Addicts aren't sitting there thinking, 'I'll stop using drugs if they put me in prison, but I won't stop using drugs if they put me in jail.' And that's the main change in the bill."
Page down to read more of Christie Donner's take on the bill. How so? "Under a class-six felony, you can be sentenced to prison for a maximum of eighteen months," Donner explains. "And if you're convicted of a class-one misdemeanor, you can be sentenced to jail for a maximum of eighteen months. So from a public safety perspective, if people are concerned that somebody with long-term drug addiction poses a particular safety risk, they can put them in jail for as long as they could put them in prison. But this bill actually offers cost savings for people not being put in prison, and instead being put into treatment. We're not saying our preferred course of action is for all people who would have gone to prison to go to jail, but jail is still an option."
The change wouldn't affect a huge number of people. "We have data that says 200 people went to prison last year on a class-six felony," Donner notes. But the impact could still be substantial, she maintains: "It costs $32,000 a year to incarcerate someone in prison. So for every thirty people we don't put in prison, that's about a million dollars to put into treatment."
Such figures clearly haven't changed Suthers's mind, and Donner concedes that "I don't know where law enforcement is yet" when it comes to support for the bill. Not that she thinks police or other agencies should fear the measure. "This is a slight rebalancing, not decriminalization -- and it's not going soft. This is about research-based strategies to reduce drug addiction and drug-related crime.
"We keep hearing that we need to have the felony hammer to hang over people's heads. But if that was a magic solution, as the attorney general indicates, then nobody would be using drugs on probation, or on parole, or on community corrections. But they do, because that's the nature of addiction. So we're spending a lot of money on these people in the wrong way."
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