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Getting Smart on Crime: Time to Reform Colorado’s Drug Offense Sentencing Policies

IP-1-2005 (January 2005)
Author: Mike Krause

PDF of full Issue Paper
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Executive Summary

Colorado is in the midst of a prison population crisis. Overburdened state prisons and a demand for yet more new prison beds are in conflict with a state budget dilemma. The legislature can begin to address the prison problem by rethinking Colorado’s sentencing structure as it relates to drug offenses, which are a major cause of prison population growth. Two fundamental reforms are needed:

  • Creating a separate set of felony sentencing guidelines and halving the presumptive sentencing ranges for non-violent drug offenses.
  • Downgrading simple use and possession of controlled substances from felony crimes to misdemeanors.

Why these reforms are needed:

  • Colorado’s adult prisoner population has increased more than 400% over the last 20 years.
  • In just the last decade, the Colorado Department of Corrections’ operating budget has more than doubled to $469.7 million, easily outpacing overall state spending increases.
  • While prison population projections require more prison beds, Colorado cannot afford to build more prisons out of the general fund, resulting in an often undesirable reliance on private prisons.
  • Since 1985, the percentage of prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses has quadrupled; non-violent drug offenders now make up more than 20% of Colorado prisoners.
  • Most drug sales are consensual, albeit criminal, transactions between consenting adults. It is irrational and counter-productive to have non-violent drug offenses in the same felony classification and sentencing scheme as violent and property crimes.
  • A felony conviction follows people for life, negatively impacting the ability to obtain credit, housing or employment. Simple use and possession does not rise to the level of lifelong punishment.