Bill Ritter's baby steps toward prison reform

After the embarrasing political scrum over the sex offender bill that prompted Governor Bill Ritter to veto the mess last week, it's easy to overlook the fact that something was actually accomplished on the criminal justice front in the legislature this year.

Yesterday, Ritter signed into a law a package of bills designed to lower penalties for certain drug offenses, provide more judicial discretion in sentencing nonviolent offenders and halfway house walkaways, and other measures that could save the state millions in annual prison costs.

Modest as most of the reforms are, they represent the most rational and far-reaching attempt at getting a handle on runaway corrections spending and knee-jerk mandatory sentencing in this state since a wave of budget-busting, lock-em-up legislation sent the prison population skyrocketing over the past two decades.

The most significant pieces of the package roll back the stiff sentences for minor drug offenders and reduce the use of the revolving door for parole violators, who now represent more than a third of the incoming prison population. Reducing the number of technical violations that translate into more prison time could have a huge impact on the number of people actually completing parole and drastically reduce prison costs, as pointed out in my 2006 feature "Over and Over Again."

Other bills drop the requirement that a parolee who misses a curfew be charged with a new felony for "escape" -- a rebuke of sorts to district attorneys, who've been using such laws to file habitual criminal charges on low-level losers -- and allow judges more leeway in handing out probation to offenders who have previous nonviolent felony convictions.

But hardliners got something out of the new criminal justice bills, too, including an increase in minimum jail terms for repeat drunk drivers and harsher penalties for those who have sexual relationships with juvenile inmates.

Wait: Isn't sex with inmates (on the part of a certain lawmaker's brother-in-law) what ended up getting the sex offender bill hopelessly muddled with hidden agendas and murky motives?

Not to worry. That last bill passed both houses unanimously. Even Joyce Foster voted for it, and Ritter signed it. Consensus at last.