Paul Nitze: Criminal justice reform is needed in Colorado
Were at the end of another state legislative session in Colorado, which means, inevitably, legislators are playing high-stakes poker over criminal justice reform. All of the drama right now is with death penalty repeal. If you missed it, the House repealed the death penalty earlier this week by a single vote, and its now the Senates turn to queue up for what may be an equally tight vote. Our governor is playing the role of the sphinx according to his spokesman he is monitoring the Legislatures moves on the bill.So much time and attention is paid to the death penalty because it is a potent moral barometer, reflecting our collective attitudes toward crime and punishment. But we would be wise to remember that the practical consequences of the death penalty fight are almost nil. Colorado has executed one person in the past 30 years. We have two people on death row. We do spend money on our death penalty defense and prosecution apparatus, but its a drop in the bucket relative to our nearly $800 million correctional budget.All those klieg lights on the death penalty miss the big criminal justice news of the week. Thats the decision by incoming Senate President Brandon Schaffer to kill SB 286, a sentencing reform bill crafted by State Public Defender Doug Wilson and other members of Colorados criminal defense bar. Schaffer killed the bill on Tuesday and stated the obvious three weeks isnt enough time to have a meaningful conversation about a bill that would completely rejigger our sentencing laws.If youre a member of the criminal defense bar, SB 286 is a bonanza. You name the type of sentencing mitigation, and the bills got it covered. Sick of mandatory incarceration for defendants with two prior felonies? Youre in luck. Want to be able to get non-violent offender treatment for defendants who are charged with violent crimes but plead to property crimes? No problem. How about misdemeanor charges for defendants caught with hefty amounts of cocaine or methamphetamine? You get the idea.So when the Colorado District Attorneys Council and Attorney General John Suthers came out against the bill, they had plenty of reasonable bases on which to oppose it. Aside from their substantive concerns with the bill, they rightly pointed out that we have a blue-ribbon commission in place thats meant to address exactly these issues, and that commission was bypassed by the authors of SB 286.Problem is, that argument rings pretty hollow. The Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice was created two years ago now, and counts as its members most of the major players in our state criminal justice system. Every side has a voice on the commission. When it was created, in the spring of 2007, it inspired a lot of hope that we would finally tackle our most pressing criminal justice needs in a bipartisan manner, with the encouragement and backing of the governor.Since then, no comprehensive sentencing reform proposal has emerged from the commission. We are still incarcerating more people than we should, and still failing to address the special circumstances of juvenile offenders, offenders in need of mental health evaluation and treatment, and offenders who are primarily doing time on drug charges. Supporters of SB 286 have argued that the commission is asleep at the wheel and exists primarily to give the governor political cover so that he doesnt appear soft on crime.Thats not right, but those arguments are getting a lot more traction than they did in the past, because enough time has elapsed that the commission is on the hook for a proposal. Its not enough, at this point, to simply berate supporters of SB 286 for bypassing the commission. Some meaningful counter-proposal has to be on the table or the commission will simply appear to be obstructing the reform agenda.And were now at a point when getting a reform bill through the Legislature and onto the governors desk is only going to get harder, not easier. You can be dead certain Republicans will demagogue just about any proposal as soft on crime during Gov. Ritters re-election campaign. If wed been able to get something passed this session, the issue wouldve lost its bite by the 2010 campaign. Now Democrats risk lining up the calendar perfectly for the GOP when they couldve dealt with the issue sooner.But cynical political maneuverings by state Republicans dont excuse the current leadership void on this issue. Even if theres political risk in it for him, Gov. Ritter has got to stand behind the commission and urge them to complete a proposal before the end of the next legislative session. And hes got to see that bill through to passage. After all, one of the reasons we elected a Democratic former prosecutor was to have someone in the top job with the authority to get a bill past opponents on the right and the left. If we dont have an alternative on the table, we have no excuse when the next flawed bill comes down the pike.Paul Nitze is a deputy district attorney in Adams County and has been a part-time Aspenite his entire life. Before attending law school, he worked as a legislative assistant to another part-time local, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
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