Colorado’s prison sentencing laws are due for an overhaul. Here’s what could change.

Effort could decrease state’s prison population, improve recidivism rate

A photograph of the Colorado Capitol on July 30, 2020. (Moe Clark, Colorado Newsline)

A state task force is attempting to overhaul Colorado’s prison sentencing laws — an undertaking that hasn’t been done in a comprehensive way in decades despite two similar efforts over the last 10 years.

Sentence lengths are a key driver of Colorado’s prison population, which increased seven-fold between 1980 and 2016 as a result of a slew of policy changes that created new crimes and dramatically increased prison sentences for existing ones, according to a 2018 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. 

“Our sentencing structure is not understandable at this point,” said Maureen Cain, legislative and policy director for the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender and member of the newly resurrected state Sentencing Task Force. “We want to reduce the sentencing ranges to more consistent and reasonable.”

Over the next few months, the 25-member task force, formed by the Colorado Commission for Criminal and Juvenile Justice, will assess prison sentence lengths, misdemeanor and felony classifications, the parole system and alternatives to incarceration with the ultimate goal of decreasing Colorado’s prison population and comparatively high recidivism rate. 

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.

Task force members hope to recommend reforms to lawmakers by the 2021 legislative session, which convenes in January. The task force’s next public meeting is scheduled for Nov. 10.

Between July 1, 2012, and June 30, 2018, admissions of inmates with new sentences to Colorado prisons increased by 20%, according to a report presented to the CCJJ on Sept. 9. During the same timeframe, admissions of women inmates increased by 56%.

One main driver of the increase is a growing number of new court filings. In 2019, the Colorado Judicial Department reported that it received approximately 14,000 new felony cases. 

Apryl Alexander, associate professor at the University of Denver, speaks to a crowd gathered at the Colorado State Capitol building about decreasing the prison population on Aug. 27, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

The group was formed after Gov. Jared Polis sent CCJJ a letter in June asking them to look into sentencing reforms.

“The last several months have only further underscored the existing inequities and disparities that exist in our country and our state,” Polis wrote in the letter. “Many are protesting right now, seeking justice and changes to our law enforcement, criminal, and juvenile justice systems.” 

“It is time we tackle one of the most difficult issues affecting both adults and juveniles in the justice system, especially for people of color: sentencing recalibration,” he added. 

First on the docket: recalibrating sentence lengths

One of the biggest undertakings is recalibrating and restructuring the state’s felony and misdemeanor sentencing grids, which are used to determine the range of prison sentences by taking into account a person’s criminal record and the severity of the crimes. 

Part of this work will be evaluating whether or not offenses are accurately classified as felonies or misdemeanors, and removing redundant statutes that are rarely used or are covered by other crimes.

During the task force’s second meeting, on Oct. 8, Cain presented preliminary work that she and three others had been working on since fall of 2019 to “reduce the sentencing ranges to be more consistent and reasonable,” Cain said.

A photograph of the Denver Justice Center, a courthouse and detention building located in the Civic Center District, taken on Aug. 4, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

“I think that as we expanded over the years and we doubled and then we doubled again, we kind of lost track of what we are doing and how much time is really the right amount of time,” Cain said, referring to the increase in prison sentences. “It really felt like crimes became a certain level depending upon the politics at the time.”

The group will also be assessing what’s called sentencing enhancements, which lead to longer sentences based on someone’s criminal record as well as evaluating the effectiveness of the state’s parole system, which Cain says has resulted in “unfairness and inconsistency.” 

During their last meeting, the group split the Sentencing Task Force into four working groups:

  • Sentencing Structure: focused on recalibrating prison lengths and evaluating sentencing enhancements such as extraordinary risk and habitual offender statutes
  • Sentence Progression: how the state can better facilitate successful reintegration into society
  • Sentencing Alternatives/Decisions/Probation: looking at diversion programs as an alternative to prison, as well as assessing the state’s probation requirements
  • Parole System: evaluating the use and eligibility of discretionary and mandatory parole

Reforms could help decrease the state’s prison population, improve recidivism rate

Michael Dougherty, district attorney for the state’s 20th Judicial District, which encompasses Boulder County, remains optimistic that the current attempt to modernize the state’s sentencing laws will be more successful than past efforts. 

“There have been various attempts over the years, including by CCJJ, so I don’t want to gloss over the things they’ve done to address sentencing,” said Dougherty, who also served on the last iteration of the task force in 2014. “But what distinguishes this effort is we have the momentum, the energy and also the support of the governor’s office to bring real sentencing reform to Colorado.”

A portrait of District Attorney Michael Dougherty, who represents Colorado’s 20th Judicial District. (Downloaded from boulder county.org)

Dougherty stressed that even minor changes to sentencing laws in the past have had large impacts on the state’s prison population.

He used a 2013 change to the state’s felony theft statute as an example. Prior to the change, a felony was triggered if the value of stolen money or goods was above $1,000. Now, that threshold is $2,000.

“Over the last five years, we’ve seen admissions to state prison going up for nearly every major felony offense except for theft,” Dougherty said. “Theft went down. So these changes have a very real impact.”

He said he hopes that the recommendations put forth by the Task Force will ultimately help improve Colorado’s poor recidivism rate.

“We have roughly 50% of everyone released from state prison in Colorado returns to prison within three years,” he said. “The nationwide average is 32%. So we rank in the bottom 10 in the nation for successful rehabilitation. So we need to do a far better job to address that at the state level.”