Drug sentencing reform bill sent to commission (and oblivion) for further study

Statehouse veterans know that the easiest way to squash a bill they don't like isn't to kill it outright but to send it out for serious "study" -- to some lonely subcommittee or outside agency, where it will languish and eventually die a slow, agonizing death from neglect. Senate Bill 163, which would have reduced a range of drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, got a version of that trip to nowhere last week.

Sentencing reform activists made some significant inroads this legislative session, including the passage of House Bill 1271, limiting the power of prosecutors to "direct file" criminal charges against juveniles in adult court. (The bill was recently signed into law by Governor John Hickenlooper.) But SB 163, which sought to further refine the distinction between low-level addicts and drug traffickers for purpose of prosecution and punishment, is a big one that got away.

The bill would have reduced the penalty for possession of small quantities of certain drugs, including methamphetamine, ketamine, Rohypnol and other so-called "dance club drugs," from a felony to a misdemeanor, and reduced the severity of the felony charged in some other drug cases. It would also have allocated expected savings in imprisonment costs to drug treatment.

But the proposal ran into a buzzsaw of opposition from the powerful law enforcement lobby. Sheriffs complained that the bill would shift the burden of housing drug addicts from state prisons to county jails. Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey warned that the measure would foul up the city's long-established drug court system, which uses felony convictions as a hammer to compel participants to complete treatment programs.

Despite bipartisan support for the bill, the wrangling and bitching ultimately prompted the Senate Appropriations Committee to neuter the bill; the amended measure now directs the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to conduct a six-month study of drug sentencing schemes and come back with recommendations for the 2013 legislative session.

In a peevish moment, bill sponsor Pat Steadman denounced Morrissey as a "snake" and a "villain" Friday for helping to gut SB 163. (Morrissey's response was to bemoan the "name-calling," which is a politician's way of saying, "I know you are, but what am I?") Steadman has since put a somewhat more positive spin on the situation, talking about the CCJJ's opportunity to create "a separate sentencing grid for drug offenses. It's something the task force worked on last year and was unable to reach consensus, and we are asking them to give it another try."

The old school try will take another year. Meanwhile, Colorado remains committed -- if not addicted -- to its current approach to drug prosecutions.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Dr. Louis Hampers sentenced to five years of probation for prescription drug fraud."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast