A pile of controversial bills

The state budget bill will be working its way through the House this week and we’ll likely be considering it next week. Given the increased state revenues, at least in comparison to the past few years, the budget debates are expected to be less bitter than in recent past.

In the meantime, we’ve got a pile of controversial bills waiting to be debated in the Senate. For example, a couple of bills follow quickly on the heels of significant criminal justice reforms we passed in the last couple of years.

As one of four legislators on the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), I see my function as primarily to listen and learn from the other commission members who work in the criminal justice system and to act as a bridge between CCJJ and the legislature.

The 20 other non-legislator commission members range from the state public defender and the criminal defense bar to law enforcement as well as representatives for crime victims and state departments such as judicial, corrections, parole, public safety, education and human services.

I’ve sponsored and supported a number of CCJJ reform bills in the past and have urged my colleagues to do the same. I understand and agree that the societal costs of incarceration in Colorado go well beyond the state fiscal budget. As reform advocates say, we need to be smart on crime, not just tough on crime. I agree, but not at the expense of public safety.

The additional direct file and drug sentencing reduction legislation this session cause me enough concern that I can’t support them. There’s no demonstrated abuse of prosecutorial discretion on juvenile direct file since the 2010 legislation. The drug offenses included in the new bill include meth, cocaine, and heroin.

Meth use has had particularly harsh consequences in my senate district, and the statewide meth task force opposes the sentence reduction bill as currently drafted. There’s nearly unanimous opposition from law enforcement to both bills, in part due to the lack of time to evaluate the impacts of the recent legislative efforts.

I agree with reducing the number of incarcerated nonviolent offenders, whether juveniles or adults, but not at the expense of public safety. The “war on drugs” hasn’t produced a drug-free society. Going around the commission on these bills is certainly possible, but at what cost to the overall goals of Colorado criminal justice reform?

Prosecutors, sheriffs, police chiefs and the attorney general have been key, constructive players in the reforms made so far. Now, though, the end run around the CCJJ is undermining the value of participation in the commission.

The advocates for faster, larger-scale reforms say they’re not asking for that much and they’re ready to go regardless of CCJJ as the political winds are in their favor.

Colorado has been praised as an innovative national leader for CCJJ’s efforts to build a diverse coalition of the various players and stakeholders affected by criminal justice issues. CCJJ’s about to reach its fifth anniversary of working together for criminal justice reform built on well documented evidence and data.

Like many other perplexing and divisive issues we face at the Capitol and in our communities, working relentlessly for consensus can produce longer term and better solutions to thorny problems.

Ellen Roberts represents Senate District 6 in Colorado’s General Assembly. The district encompasses Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata, Archuleta, Montrose, San Miguel, San Juan and Ouray counties. Contact Sen. Roberts by phone at (303) 866-4884, or e-mail ellen.roberts.senate@state.co.us.

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