Amid heated public debate about school sex education, the death penalty and vaccinations, many of the criminal justice bills drew less attention. But the reforms already have affected thousands of Coloradans — especially those who are poor — and will change the experience of tens of thousands more in the years to come.
Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, said she saw the bills divided into two categories: How to keep people out of jail before they’ve been convicted and how to keep people out of the prison system who don’t need to be there. Many of the changes are similar to progressive movements in other states to reform criminal justice systems, especially changes to bail, she said.
Lawmakers passed bills that reduced personal drug possession to misdemeanors and made it easier to leave jail before trial. Those already convicted will face less strict penalties for some parole violations and could gain the right to vote before they finish parole. And once parole is completed, people convicted of certain crimes now have a more streamlined way to seal their records.
Lawmakers and government officials have grappled for years over how to solve the state’s prison crowding. In Gov. Jared Polis‘s budget request for the Department of Corrections issued in January, Polis urged legislators to pass bills that address the underlying causes of overcrowding.
“As a state, we have made progress on criminal justice reform but there is still much work to be done,” the budget request stated.
At the end of March, less than 2 percent of the state’s 14,506 prison beds were available, Department of Corrections records show. The department’s budget also neared $1 billion for the first time.
“It just struck a chord of crisis for some folks that we need to do something,” Maes said.
Criminal justice bills that passed the legislature this session include:
- Reducing personal drug possession of fewer than 4 grams from a felony to a misdemeanor and eliminating the potential for criminal charges for drug residue, effective March 2020
- Eliminating cash bail for petty and municipal offenses
- Creating timelines for bond hearings and the release of people who post bail, in an attempt to make sure people aren’t sitting in jail for longer than necessary
- The addition of 15 district court judge positions across the state
- The creation of a program that will send defendants reminders about court dates via text message
- A law requiring jails, prisons and Department of Human Services facilities to provide free tampons and pads to people in custody
- Changes to the state’s parole system that make it harder for the parole board to deny release and to bring a person back to prison for many technical violations
- Allowing people serving parole to vote
- The creation of a streamlined process to seal many criminal recordswithout filing for action in civil court
The change is the result of years of educating lawmakers and the public about topics such as bail and the challenges people face when they’re released from prison, Maes said. The legislative work this year also laid the groundwork for more reform in years to come.
From the Denver Post.