Pubdate: Thu, 02 May 2013
Source: Denver Post (CO)
Copyright: 2013 The Denver Post Corp
Author: Kurtis Lee


Mitch Morrissey Says the Measure Would Give Dealers a Break in Their 
Prison Terms.

The idea behind Sen. Pat Steadman's proposal to overhaul Colorado's 
drug sentencing laws on its surface is simple: Prioritize treatment 
over incarceration and, in turn, lower the recidivism rates of 
habitual drug users.

But even as the Denver Democrat's effort has garnered the support of 
his Republican colleagues, it's caused a rift with Denver District 
Attorney Mitch Morrissey, who staunchly opposes the legislation and 
argues it gives high-level drug dealers a break when it comes to 
prison sentences and offers more incentive to continue breaking the law.

Senate Bill 250, which passed out of the Senate by a vote of 34-1 on 
Wednesday and now heads to the House in these final days of the 
legislative session, is derived from the work of the state's 
Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and creates a specialized 
drug-only sentencing system.

In Colorado, drug sentencing is included in the same sentencing 
system with violent crimes.

"Drug addicts a lot of times are getting felonies for repeated 
arrests," Steadman said. "They have a physical dependency, and it's 
keeping them in the prison system."

The coalition of lawmakers, judges, prosecutors and police at CCJJ 
established within the bill a sentencing structure that allows the 
court to vacate felony convictions and enter a misdemeanor conviction 
if an individual completes probation and community-based treatment.

The aim, say proponents, is to separate users and addicts from 
high-level dealers and manufacturers.

Steadman, whose House sponsor on the measure is Rep. Claire Levy, 
D-Boulder, says the United States "has been fighting a war on drugs 
for 40 years, trying to do something on the supply side, and it hasn't worked."

"Yes, the dealers are preying on people and pumping poison into the 
streets," he said. "But the reason they're doing it and making 
profits is because there's all these people who are addicted, and if 
we combat addiction, we can curb the demand."

Yet in focusing on reducing incarceration rates of drug users and 
low-level offenders, the bill reduces current sentence ranges for 
high-level dealers selling large quantities of drugs.

For example, prison sentences in Colorado for an individual caught 
selling $13,000 worth of meth and $17,000 worth of heroin would drop 
from four to 16 years, to four to eight years as the sentences 
structures by the CCJJ reclassified crimes.

Enter Morrissey's problem with the bill.

"Drug dealing is the most deliberate crime we see," Morrissey said. 
"Giving drug dealers who are selling poison to people on the streets 
a break is a problem, and now for them the cost of doing this illegal 
business is worth it."

But Steadman and members of theCCJJ said that often higher-level drug 
dealers normally receive low-to mid-level sentences already.

Members of the CCJJ took data from the Colorado Division of Criminal 
Justice as it pertains to drug cases in Denver between 2010 and 2012. 
Of those 1,169 cases, less than 10 percent would have fallen into the 
drug category of Felony 1 or 2 - the highest level offenses under SB 
250 that offer sentences of up to 32 years with mandatory parole of 
three years.

In the cases that would be considered drug Felony 1 convictions under 
the new sentencing system, the majority of sentences handed out in 
Denver courts during that time were lower than the mandatory range 
proposed in SB 250.

Morrissey called that argument the "most flawed" he's ever heard.

"You don't get high-end sentences, so we're going to cut them in 
half? That's backward thinking," he said.

Still, organizations such as the Colorado District Attorney's Council 
support the measure, noting the need to focus on treatment for 
low-level drug violations.

"We want to maintain the ability to prosecute these high-end drug 
felonies with longer sentences, and this bill still allows us to do 
that," said Tom Raynes, executive director of the District Attorney's Council.

Last year, the District Attorney's Council was in opposition to a 
measure sponsored by Steadman that would have done away with felony 
convictions for drug users, replacing them with misdemeanors.

That bill was amended to become a study of drug sentences for the 
CCJJ to conduct, which led the organization to draft Senate Bill 250.

The state's financial analysts project the measure would save 
Colorado about $5 million in Department of Corrections operating 
costs next year because a certain population of low-level drug 
offenders will not see incarceration time.

"The power of addiction is what creates this demand for illegal 
drugs," Steadman said. "And if we can do something on the demand 
side, give people the opportunity for treatment and not felony 
convictions, we can make serious strides and help lives."
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