Law enforcement officials testify in support of an auto theft prevention bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 27, 2023. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline)
As the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice prepares to meet for the final time next week, current and former lawmakers are reflecting on its work, amid continued disagreement over the best fate for the panel after a 16-year run making policy recommendations to the Legislature.
The House Judiciary Committee last month indefinitely postponed a bill that would have renewed the commission for another year, meaning it will conclude its work by the end of June. The commission was formed through legislation in 2007 with the intention of removing politics from the process of making criminal justice policy, and some legislators advocating for its disbandment highlighted the body’s achievements during its existence.
The CCJJ worked on dozens of bills that passed the Legislature since its formation, most recently including bills on sentencing reform and automatic sealing of records when no criminal charges are filed. The commission’s stated mission is to “enhance public safety, to ensure justice, and to ensure the protection of the rights of victims through the cost-effective use of public resources.”
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Former Democratic Speaker of the Colorado House Terrance Carroll, who led the push to create the commission in 2007, agreed that now is the time to bring the CCJJ’s work to a close, as he said it was never intended to be permanent.
Carroll said he thinks the commission served its intended purpose and made Colorado a leader when it comes to criminal justice policy. He said the principles and the spirit of the CCJJ’s work will live on in future policymaking efforts, as its work should be “deeply embedded” in how state officials think about criminal justice.
“The reason that it was created was to bring some innovation to the state about how we thought about criminal and juvenile justice,” Carroll told Newsline. “The state was going through some exceptionally difficult budget challenges, and one of the major drivers of the budget at the time was our criminal justice system. We were arresting a record number of people.”
The commission’s 30 members included sitting lawmakers, state agency heads, representatives of the judicial branch and people appointed by the governor to represent a “variety of perspectives” on criminal justice.
During the House Judiciary Committee hearing where the bill renewing the commission was killed, Democratic state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez of Denver said she had not seen enough work dedicated to the juvenile justice aspect of the commission during her time as a member. She said times have changed since the commission first formed, giving the Legislature an opportunity to “reassess, reevaluate and redetermine what the future can look like when it comes to this type of work,” and Democrats on the committee agreed.
“It’s not a failure. It’s closing a chapter of something that wasn’t meant to be permanent,” said Rep. Elisabeth Epps, a Denver Democrat. “This frees us up to figure out what’s next in this space, and I see that as a success.”
Democratic state Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver has served on the CCJJ as long as she’s been in the Legislature, and said she became increasingly concerned with the role she saw politics playing in the commission’s work. Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter to the commission last year highlighting issues he wanted it to address, specifically sentencing reform, which was followed by another letter asking for work on motor vehicle theft reform.
Gonzales said the wording of the letter gave her the feeling that if the CCJJ didn’t work on motor vehicle theft, the governor would find someone within the Legislature who would. The CCJJ ended up approving increased penalties for motor theft, which the Legislature passed, but Gonzales said she never saw convincing data demonstrating that increased criminal penalties will reduce car theft.
“This certainly is a widespread problem,” Gonzales said of motor theft. “However, increasing felony penalties didn’t seem like it was a policy solution. It was a political solution.”
GOP, law enforcement supported renewal
The end of the CCJJ does not mean the end of criminal justice reform policy, Gonzales said. She hopes to see continued conversations on how to structure a new space to continue working on criminal justice outside of the legislative session.
All of the representatives on the House Judiciary Committee who voted against postponing the bill were Republicans. Many law enforcement officials wanted to see the CCJJ’s work continue, including Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council.
Raynes has served on the commission since its inception and said he was disappointed to see it disbanded “without much justification.” He highlighted several policies and recommendations the CCJJ has made, including its work on drug reform, particulary Senate Bill 13-250, which he said completely overhauled Colorado’s drug statutes.
Without the CCJJ, Raynes said he anticipates far more partisan approaches to criminal justice issues brought forward. He said the commission forced people from “opposite sides of multiple spectrums” to sit down and compromise, and that bringing together people who disagree leads to stronger policy. He said in a way, the commission protected against extremism from either side of the aisle.
“I think the CCJJ was collaboratively and genuinely focused on meaningful and evidence-based criminal justice reform — and I mean criminal justice reform in a positive context,” Raynes said. “Some people use that term when they really mean criminal justice deconstruction, and I fear there will be efforts that will be highly partisan, not evidence-based, not substantiated with strong stakeholder meetings.”
Possible next steps
Raynes said he isn’t sure if the majority of legislators outside of the House Judiciary Committee would vote to kill the CCJJ, and that the achievements of the CCJJ were “rare” and “monumental” when compared to other efforts across the country. He hopes to see some kind of working group or task force formed that can look into specific topics the commission didn’t get to address.
“There’s a lot of big policy questions that still need addressing that perhaps some new group could look at,” Raynes said. “I think it’s important that whatever is put together is done carefully and not overloaded by one perspective or another, and that means it shouldn’t be too many law enforcement, it shouldn’t be too many criminal defense bar, it shouldn’t be too many from a certain special interest group — it needs to have balance.”
Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for Polis, said the governor is disappointed to see that the Legislature did not reauthorize the commission, as he remains “committed to making Colorado one of the top ten safest states.”
“Our team is evaluating the next possible steps for continuing the collaborative and thoughtful work done by CCJJ,” Cahill said in an email. “The CCJJ is an important deliberative body representing a broad spectrum of stakeholders that examine and bring forth evidence-based recommendations on criminal justice and juvenile justice issues.”
Gonzales said having a space where conversations around big policy ideas can happen outside of the 120-day legislative session is beneficial, but she wants to see more subject matter experts and people impacted by the policies directly involved.
Others had expressed concerns that the CCJJ has been unable to meaningfully include people with lived experiences in the criminal justice system, and about a lack of accessibility to its meetings, especially to those who speak languages other than English, Gonzales said.
“It is harder work to involve (and) make space for people who don’t do policy work for a living,” Gonzales said. “It is slower, and yet I actually think that it ultimately produces better outcomes, because it then is actually reflective of the participation and work of everyone involved… It’s hard to engage if you have no sense of what’s actually taking place.”
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