Bill to reduce jail populations faces criticism from Colorado law enforcement

colorado capitol
Posted at 6:39 PM, Mar 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-04 23:33:42-05

DENVER — After nearly 7.5 hours of testimony in the state legislature, a criminal justice reform bill passed on a vote of 3-2 along party lines.

All Republicans voted against it and all Democrats voted for it. It's now moving on to the Appropriations Committee.

The bill is facing steep opposition from the law enforcement community.

Senate Bill 62 would continue some of the practices law enforcement agencies across the state have implemented during the COVID pandemic to reduce jail populations.

“One thing they did was they told officers to issue summonses as opposed to arrest warrants for people to give people a date to come into court rather than executing a custodial arrest and bringing them into jail,” said Sen. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat who is one of the bill's sponsors.

Lee says the changes made to jails over the course of the pandemic have saved the state roughly $210 million since fewer people were being housed.

The bill aims to codify some of the changes into law as a way to lower overall jail populations across the state.

The bill would give officers the right to issue a summons rather than arresting suspects for any offense committed.

“We are addicted to incarceration,” Lee said. “The incarceration system doesn’t work very well. Fifty percent of the people who come out of the Department of Corrections go back within three years.”

He believes the jails should be reserved for people who pose a risk to the community and not be used as a way to deal with people suffering from mental health problems or who are dealing with poverty issues. The American Civil Liberties Union, criminal justice reform groups and some district attorneys like Denver DA Beth McCann have thrown their support behind the bill. Other district attorneys groups have taken a neutral stance.

The bill also prohibits officers and deputies from arresting a person who committed a traffic offense, petty offense, municipal offense, misdemeanor crime, a class 4, 5 or 6 felony or a class 3 or 4 drug offense.

Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican and former sheriff, believes the bill is a bad idea since those felonies include things like animal fighting, disarming a police officer, violation of custody orders, arson, aggravated motor vehicle theft, bribing witnesses, bringing contraband into a jail and more.

“It’s pro criminal. I wouldn’t say it’s anti-victim, but in a way, it is. It’s anti-public safety, anti-community safety,” Cooke said.

The bill allows for certain exemptions to these rules to allow law enforcement officers to make an arrest if the crime involves an illegal firearm, a victims' rights crime, unlawful sexual behavior, cases of domestic violence, threats to schools and more.

Along with changing the arrest standards for officers, SB62 also prohibits courts from issuing monetary bonds for these crimes unless it’s determined that the defendant is a flight risk or a risk to someone’s safety.

It also requires courts to issue personal recognizance bonds (also known as signature bonds) for defendants who fail to appear at their court hearings three or more times.

“By encouraging judges to use more personal recognizance bonds, it will reduce the number of people in the jails,” Lee said.

Supporters of the bill say monetary bonds disproportionately affect communities of color and low income communities and punish people by incarcerating them before they've had their day in court. During a hearing on Thursday, the family of Michael Marshall testified in support of the bill saying Marshall should not have been in jail and this bill might have saved his life. Several other families whose loved ones died in jail also testified in support of the bill.

Cooke disagrees with the extended use of PR bonds and argues that allowing people to not face monetary bonds for failing to show up to hearings three or more times will mean victims will not see justice for years, if at all.

“People are not going to show up for court. They’re not going to get picked up again for two or three or four or five years,” Sen. Cooke said.

He argues the bill would see more support if class 4 and 5 felonies were removed from the list and PR bonds were only issued after one failure to appear.

During Thursday's hearing law enforcement officers, mayors, representatives from the business community and more lined up to testify against the bill, saying it will make communities less safe. Many cited an increase in crime last year in various parts of Colorado.

“This is just I think an invitation for criminals to continue the contact without any interruption of serving time, assuming they even show up. This is a catch-and-release program where for serious crimes you’re only given a court date,” said Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman.

Coffman said the crime rate in Aurora has increased during the pandemic, including a 70% increase in auto thefts.

While he understands the reasons law enforcement are enforcing these rules during the pandemic, he says he doesn’t think they should be made permanent.

“It will make our city less safe. We will not bring down the rise in crime rate that we have had and that we suffered from during this pandemic as a result of this bill if it passes,” Coffman said.

Meanwhile, Maris Herold, the new chief of police in Boulder, says she has also seen a spike in crime over the past nine months.

“We do not know what’s happening because of a crazy year with this pandemic, so why in the world would we want to pass major legislation right now? It’s not the right time. There’s other things we can focus on,” Herold said.

Before making any serious changes, she would like researchers to take time to dig into the data from the past year to figure out why crime rates have gone up in some areas and the role changes to the jail system played in those rates.

Bill co-sponsors offered a number of amendments to the bill during Thursday’s hearing in order to give law enforcement more leeway in decisions to arrest offenders for some of these crimes.

Still, testimony on the bill lasted for hours with criminal justice reform advocates insisting this bill will help keep low-level offenders out of jail while law enforcement officials and others insisted this bill will hurt community safety.