Colorado lawmakers are yet again preparing a slate of bills aimed at reforming the state’s criminal justice system, this year drawing ideas from a summer of racial justice protests demanding changes to policing and a deadly pandemic that forced innovations in the justice system while highlighting its failures.
The protests and the pandemic have added urgency to efforts to improve how thousands of people are arrested, jailed, convicted and imprisoned every year in Colorado. The protest movement also brought heightened attention to reform efforts in Colorado that have been ongoing for years, those who work on the legislation say.
The massive COVID-19 outbreaks in jails and prisons also highlighted a need for change, they say.
“Our phone blew up all summer from people in the community who wanted to get involved and people who had loved ones locked up,” said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
With Democrats in control of the House and Senate — and thus the chairs of both chambers’ judiciary committees — the party is in a position to pursue major criminal justice reform. Many ambitious bills in recent years, however, have received bipartisan support, such as the sweeping law enforcement accountability bill passed last summer in the immediate wake of racial justice protests across the state.
Lawmakers this session will work on refining that law, said Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, and one of the lead sponsors of the bill. The changes will strengthen the bill, she said, including addressing municipalities that passed resolutions vowing to never find an officer personally liable for brutality.
“While I believe we made massive strides with law enforcement accountability with SB-217 during the summer of racial reckoning, we are not done,” Herod said.
Some proposed bills stem directly from high-profile police incidents in Colorado, like a bill restricting the use of ketamine on people contacted by police. The use of the powerful sedative has come under scrutiny following the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police and paramedics, who injected him with the substance without his consent.
The bill will restrict when the drug can be used and will prohibit police from giving instructions to paramedics to use the sedative, said Denise Maes, public policy director at the ACLU of Colorado.
“It shouldn’t be used when police say so,” she said. “Police are not in a situation or have the expertise to direct that kind of use.”
Other limits on police activity also are in the works, Herod said. She is working on a bill that will regulate when and how police can use no-knock warrants, like the warrant police were acting on when they forced their way into Breonna Taylor‘s apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, and killed her.
Lawmakers also will draw from lessons learned and problems revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended how police, courts and incarceration work in the state. Police scaled back their contacts, courts incorporated online hearings, and prisons and jails struggled to manage outbreaks that sickened thousands.
Sen. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is working on a bill that will help limit the state’s jail population. Sheriffs statewide have instituted higher standards of who they will book into the jail during COVID-19 and courts have worked to release more people on lower bonds to reduce crowding in facilities during the pandemic.
“The sheriffs have gotten pretty creative about that and said, ‘Don’t bring us the guy sleeping on the park bench, we will take the people who are a danger to the community,”” Lee said.
The measures have successfully decreased the jail population and the number of people being booked into the facilities. Data maintained by the state shows that jail bookings across the state fell from 53,369 in the last three months of 2019 to 30,898 in the quarter ending Sept. 30.
“What we don’t want to have happen is to turn around and go back to where we were before COVID-19,” Lee said.
Lee and the ACLU of Colorado, which is supporting the bill, hope that codifying some of those changes — like mandatory personal recognizance bonds for some crimes and using more summons in lieu of arrests — will keep people from being needlessly jailed and save counties money.
Maes hopes another lesson learned from COVID-19 will help modernize bail practices here. Advocates for several years have tried to reform the state’s bail practices, including ensuring people in jail have a bond hearing within 48 hours of being booked. Last year, lawmakers faced pushback on the 48-hour rule from some counties that said they didn’t have the technology or the staff to do virtual court hearings on the weekends. Now, most courts have been holding virtual hearings due to the coronavirus.
“What we have found, however, is that during COVID the sky didn’t fall and there were a lot of virtual hearings, which is exactly what can happen when implementing this bill,” Maes said.
Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, also expects a bill that will allow courts and prosecutors to automatically seal eligible drug convictions, based on a recommendation from the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Now, people are required to file petitions to the courts, which can be lengthy and costly. Even targeted efforts in some jurisdictions to help people seal marijuana convictions have had mixed success.
“Right now, our law puts the burden on the individual to commence a court process and avail themselves of the right to seal criminal records,” he said. “What the drug offense task force points out is that with some upgrades and modernizations to state records systems we can make it easier for individuals to seal records that are eligible, and therefore making it easier to reintegrate into society and find employment.”
Other laws will focus on individual crimes, like an effort supported by the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council to criminalize the use of a persons’ immigration status as a threat. For example, law enforcement sometimes finds that perpetrators of domestic violence will threaten to expose their victim’s lack of legal status if the victim leaves, said Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council.
A coalition of lawmakers and people who work in the legal system also will undertake a massive overhaul of the state’s misdemeanor crimes, including changing maximum and minimum sentences.
“Criminal justice reform is front and center,” Raynes said. “Everybody is obligated, not just because of this summer but in general, to examine the system and look in the mirror.”
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