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Martin Beeson: Guest opinion

Martin Beeson
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Recently, a disturbing report was issued by the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. The report, entitled “Findings, Recommendations, and Proposed Plan for the Ongoing Study of Sentencing Reform,” should be alarming to all concerned with public safety. Its recommendations represent the beginning of an all-out assault upon the current criminal sentencing scheme in Colorado, upon the criminal statutes, and indeed, upon public safety itself.

The state of Colorado, not unlike many states, currently finds itself in the throes of difficult economic times. In times like these it is tempting, but not wise, to cut expenses not only in areas of discretionary spending but also in those of necessary spending. Public safety falls into the latter of these categories. It is precisely this dangerous temptation that the commission has fallen into.

Issues of public safety should not be decided in the pressurized environment of budgetary shortfalls. When such an environment prevails, bad decisions are made. When bad decisions are made in the realm of public safety, people die, women and children are horribly abused, and drunken drivers escalate the danger for everyone else on the road. Plain and simple. If the Legislature accepts the recommendations of this commission and transforms them into laws, then those laws will usher in incalculable human costs.

This commission was created at the urging of the governor. A Washington state study was used as one of its primary guideposts. The Washington study advocates a retreat from incarceration of criminals and an emphasis on “treatment and intervention” as the way to reduce crime and recidivism. It is no surprise then that the commission’s findings and recommendations follow suit. In short, the commission recommends that we address the problem of crime in civilized society by creating government bureaucracies that will oversee and/or administer treatment programs intended to fix the bad guys. This has been tried before. Its result has always been the same – dismal failure. There is no reason to think the outcome will be any different this time around.

The enabling legislation for the commission is couched in terms of ensuring public safety and respecting the rights of crime victims. While lip service is paid to these laudable goals, the real driving force behind the legislation, and consequently behind the commission itself, is contained in other provisions. This force can be found in the legislative assertion that “current commitments to the department of corrections require expending a significant percentage of the state budget for incarceration of offenders.”

In short, the assertion is that we are spending too much money to keep dangerous criminals off the streets.

Besides this, the process within which the commission has operated has been from its inception fundamentally dishonest and deceitful. Dishonest in that, although it speaks to maintaining, and even enhancing, public safety, its main objective has always been to cut costs. Dishonest in that it is laying the ground work for future claims of crime/recidivism reduction when in reality it is (1) merely redefining certain criminal behaviors outside the realm of criminal conduct; (2) redefining other felony behaviors as misdemeanors; and (3) redefining still other behaviors that heretofore have been probation/parole violations as no longer being violations.

Future claims of reductions in crime and recidivism based upon these exclusions will bear no relation to reality, nor will they bear any relation to public safety. Finally, the process has been deceitful in that it is severely compromising public safety in the very name of public safety. Indeed, this is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.

To be fair, there are members of the commission who have fought valiantly to mitigate the damage that the commission as a whole is doing to public safety. Their efforts are to be applauded. But theirs was a losing battle from the beginning, for the game was rigged, and the outcomes of this commission’s efforts were foregone conclusions. The commission as a whole was not tasked with the responsibility of studying, and enhancing, public safety from a dispassionate point of view. Rather, its task was to justify the predetermined goal of reducing sentences for criminal offenders in order to reduce the cost of incarcerating those who have earned the right to be in prison.

If the governor is genuinely interested in finding better ways to protect the public from those who would do us harm, then he should do three things. First, he should undertake this review of the criminal statutes and sentencing grid in an environment that is free of budgetary pressures. Only then can a truly dispassionate review and evaluation be accomplished. Second, he should create a commission that is made up of members whose sole agenda is the safety of citizens rather than the advancement of a courtroom strategy or a political ideology. Finally, he should ensure that there are no predetermined paths to follow or goals to achieve other than the safety of citizens.

The path that the existing commission has embarked upon is a dangerous one indeed. With its recommendations the commission is playing a game of Russian roulette with our safety. Moreover, the game has only just begun. In its report, the commission lays out its plan for the continued “long-term study” of “macro-level sentencing reform.”

If its initial report of findings and recommendations is any indication of the direction the long-term study will go – and I believe that it is – then we can expect more bullets in the chamber. Sooner or later a round will be in the chamber and the trigger will be pulled.

Included at the end of this article is the link to the government website wherein the commission’s report can be accessed. Citizens should read the report and make their own determinations as to the efficacy of the recommendations to secure and enhance public safety.

As the 2010 legislative session gets under way, we must let our legislators know that our safety should be their paramount concern and that they would be wise to seriously consider the ramifications of these recommendations upon public safety before making them into law. If they are made law, there will be a price to be paid down the road. A very high price.

http://cdpsweb.state.co.us/cccjj/PDF/2009_Nov_Report/SB09-286-Report_11-30-09.pdf


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