Like any war, America’s War on Drugs has left an untold number of victims in its wake. A generation ago, lawmakers adopted a “get tough” approach to curb the crack cocaine epidemic and enacted harsh sentences for drug crimes. As a result, America ended up jailing more of its citizens than any other industrialized nation. However, as the costs of incarcerating drug offenders became unsustainable, legislatures across the country began to change the way they punish drug crimes. As another example of this policy shift, Colorado’s Senate Judiciary Committee recently approved a bill to lower sentences for drug-possession crimes and give drug abusers treatment instead jail time.
Senate Bill 163 would lower certain possession-only drug charges from felonies to misdemeanors, and would require those convicted of such charges to get treatment for their addiction. Essentially, the penalty for possession of four grams or less of certain drugs would be reduced from a class 6 felony to a class 1 misdemeanor. Penalties for possessing more than four grams would be reduced from a class 6 felony to a class 4 felony.
The idea behind the bill is to separate drug offenders who are primarily addicts from serious criminals who engage in the manufacturing, sale and distribution of drugs. The bill has received bi-partisan support, as it was introduced by Republican Shawn Mitchell and Democrat Pat Steadman. Its sponsors believe that Colorado’s drug policy and public safety would be enhanced by making these changes. Other supporters include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Colorado Libertarian Party and the Independence Institute.
However, the bill’s opponents were concerned about the costs associated with treatments and the burden that the new law would put on county jails. With more drug convictions being misdemeanors (instead of felonies) there could be an influx of inmates that would normally go to state prisons. The effect on sheriffs’ budgets had not been addressed, and that made county officials anxious. In opposing the bill, Senator Steve King (R-Grand Junction) explained that the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department had to lay off 33 officers, but would see its jail costs increase by $400,000 to house new offenders.
The bill now heads to the Senate Finance Committee for further consideration.