Colorado Moves Toward
Drug Law Reform
vs. drug program weighed
Post Capitol Bureau
September 05, 2001 - State lawmakers are considering legislation that
would have Colorado join a national trend to keep some nonviolent drug
offenders out of prison, freeing up millions of tax dollars for drug abuse
treatment programs instead.
The controversial proposal, unveiled Tuesday, would pertain only to
offenders charged with possessing small amounts of drugs, said Sen. Ken
Gordon, the Denver Democrat putting forth the plan.
"I'm not trying to be soft on crime. I'm trying to be hard on
crime," Gordon said. "I want to reduce the amount of crime in
our society. People who have substance abuse problems don't just commit
(drug crimes). They also commit forgeries, robberies, burglaries. They do
things to get money for their drug abuse."
If approved, the move would free up space in Colorado's crowded prison
system for violent offenders and save millions, supporters say. Democrats
say it may be tough to sell Republicans on the idea, but criminal
prosecutors said they might support it as long as treatment programs are
mandatory and have a proven track record.
A meeting to hammer out the details with drug experts is planned later
"I think DAs want to be fiscally responsible and if there's a
creative way to treat drug offenders and free up funds to more effectively
prosecute violent offenders, that merits consideration," said Peter
Weir, president of the Colorado District Attorneys Council. "But we
don't want to be diverting money under the rubric of treatment ... without
a proven treatment program."
Even Republican Rep. Lynn Hefley, who chairs the Criminal Sentencing
Committee, which will make the decision about whether to draft
legislation, at first rejected the idea during a subcommittee meeting,
then reversed course.
"It depends on what the district attorneys decide," Hefley
said. "I think there are some valid points to treatment as long as
it's on the front end, before someone goes to prison. But it will be
difficult to convince people of this."
Seventy-five percent of the state's 16,764 prison inmates have
substance abuse problems, according to the Department of Corrections.
Half are getting treatment at a cost of more than $4 million a year -
about $318 per inmate, which the state wants to increase. The others are
being turned out to the streets without treatment.
Gordon's proposal would funnel the savings for all drug offenders - not
just those diverted from prison - to statewide treatment programs.
Of the 1,714 drug offenders serving time for drug possession, 52 are
first-time offenders. Diverting just those from prison would save
approximately $1.3 million a year for treatment, said Sen. Doug Linkhart,
D-Denver, who favors the proposed legislation. Diverting all 1,714 would
save the state more than $43 million a year, he said. It costs $26,000 a
year to house one prisoner in a state prison. It is estimated it would
cost far less to treat an offender, depending on the nature of the
treatment, Gordon said.
While Colorado has little data on the effectiveness of drug treatment,
one short-term study showed that the rate of recidivism dropped from 38
percent to 22 percent for prisoners who underwent treatment.
Nationally, many states are promoting treatment over prison and working
to reform old drug laws.
The Western Governors Conference last year issued a white paper calling
on member states, including Colorado, to find alternatives to
incarceration and increase treatment for drug abusers. The paper noted
that while drug-related spending by states was increasing sharply, drug
use had remained unchanged since 1992. And though promising drug treatment
programs were emerging, they were available to only a small fraction of
those who needed it, the paper said.
New York's Gov. George Pataki recently proposed a plan that would give
more defendants the opportunity to undergo drug treatment rather than
serve long prison terms.
California and Arizona have passed laws requiring nonviolent drug
offenders to enter rehabilitation rather than prison. While local
prosecutors and even liberal legislators say California's law is too
radical for Colorado, they are in the early stages of reforming the
state's sentencing laws, starting with Tuesday's proposal.
"It's amazing how many people we're keeping in prison for
nonviolent drug offenses," said Linkhart. "We need to find money
for treatment and we're trying to be reasonable and common-sensical. But I
would not be in favor of California's law here."