COLORADO SPRINGS – El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder is calling attention a new bi-partisan bill passed by state lawmakers to would reduce criminal penalties for drug possession. House Bill 19-1263 reduces drug possession convictions for individuals caught with less than 4 grams of Schedule I and/or Schedule II narcotics from a felony offense, which typically requires a prison sentence, to a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail.
Subsequent convictions on the same drug possession-only charge will lead to longer and longer jail sentences and eventual conversion to a felony. In a video post uploaded on YouTube last month, Sheriff Elder explained that the increase in county jail population anticipated under the bill could cost local taxpayers millions of dollars.
“We’re talking probably to El Paso County alone, $1.5 to $2 million a year,” explained spokesperson Jacqueline Kirby. “And then we’re talking about statewide at the county level about $24 million in unfunded mandates that the county jails will now have to do.”
The $24 million dollar figure she referenced is based on a three-year estimate of numbers provided by the non-partisan Office of Legislative Council in the bill’s Fiscal Note. Elder assumes the number of drug possession cases in the courts will grow by at least 25 percent and he extrapolates the cost to counties will then exceed $8 million a year.
Denise Maes, the Public Policy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said you can’t look at the bill in isolation. Multiple bills passed this session which all aim to relieve jail overcrowding including House Bill 19-1225 which prohibits cash bail requirements on low-level and petty offenses, Senate Bill 19-191 which requires the prompt release of pre-trial detainees who have posted bond by prohibiting additional fees and fines placed on suspected offenders and Senate Bill 19-036 which institutes a court reminder program.
“Court reminders will reduce failure to appear arrests, the no cash bail bill for low-level offenses will relieve jail capacity issues, and Senate Bill 191 requires the prompt release of individuals once they’ve paid their bond,” Maes explained.
State Senator Pete Lee, a Democrat from Colorado Springs, is a prime sponsor of the bill. He told his colleagues that drug addicts need rehab, not prison. Lee explained that the bill provides tens of millions of dollars in state aid to counties to implement drug treatment programs.
“The jail-based behavioral health services from Department of Human Services is budgeted for some $12 million,” Lee said. “There’s additional money from the correctional treatment cash fund of $24 million and offender treatment services $18 million.”
Despite that aid, Kirby said the Sheriff’s Office still worries that the bill could lead to an increase in crime because drug offenders will be released from custody quicker, and the impulse to get high could drive many to steal.
“They are perpetrating crimes on other citizens so they can get that fix.”
House Bill 19-1263 passed a final vote on May 3rd and is awaiting the governor’s signature.