EL PASO COUNTY — A bill that has cleared the Colorado State Senate could alter policing in Colorado, as well as how many people end up in jail.
SB21-273 is sponsored by Colorado Springs State Senator Pete Lee, who says the bill is aimed at changing the relationship between police and the public. "We have become addicted to incarceration," said Lee.
The bill would limit cash bond for what Lee describes as low-level offenses, unless an individual is a threat to public safety or a flight risk. The change to cash bond could apply to misdemeanors, municipal offenses, class 4, 5, or 6 felonies, and drug felonies. "Too many people are being held in jail, because they don't have the money to pay the bond," said Lee.
Instead of making arrests for certain crimes, SB21-273 would require a summons be issued. Those offenses could range from a "traffic offense, petty offense, drug petty offense, municipal offense, drug misdemeanor offense, or misdemeanor offense."
Lee said the bill is about more than making space inside jails. "It isn't a jail space problem, as much as presumptively innocent people shouldn't be held in jail while awaiting trial. They should be given the opportunity to bond out, and continue to work, continue to earn money, continue to stay connected with their families," said Lee.
A letter of opposition against the bill was written collectively by several law enforcement agencies in El Paso County. The letter was signed by the police chiefs of Colorado Springs, Monument, and Fountain, as well as the Sheriff of El Paso County. The Colorado Springs Mayor and District Attorney for the 4th Judicial District were also included in the letter.
The letter states the agencies are concerned about the detrimental impact of SB21-273 on public safety.
"Advocates and opponents of SB21-273 agree it will reduce arrests, increase personal recognizance bonds, and reduce jail populations - but it will not reduce crime. In fact, our experience shows the direct consequences of these measures will in fact lead to further increases in crime within our communities."
Local law enforcement said the bill will only extend the measures put into place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to public health restrictions, "many criminal offenders that normally would be arrested and booked into jail have been cited and released," the letter writes.
"We have significant public safety concerns about the list of crimes people would be allowed to commit without the option of a jailable arrest being available to law enforcement. We think the majority of people in our communities will be upset to learn our state wants to limit custodial arrests for crimes that affect a large number of individuals, families and businesses in our communities. These crimes include misdemeanor level crimes such as cruelty to animals, inciting or engaging in a riot, abuse of corpse, and a significant number of “property” crimes, such as theft of up to $2,000. All of these crimes have direct impacts upon not only the specific crime victims but also upon safety, security, and well-being of all the residents and visitors to our communities."
Ultimately, the opposition letter said the bill will show criminals that accountability is optional, and will sideline victims.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado supports SB21-273. Their Public Policy Director, Denise Maes, said the bill allows for officers to make an arrest for any alleged offense, but a warrant must be obtained first. "I think at the end of the day, law enforcement does not like this bill, no matter what it entails," said Maes.
Maes went on to say the bill has a much more narrow focus than the restrictions on jails during the pandemic. She also said the ACLU has seen no data showing a reduction in jail population leads to crime increases. "I understand pushback on change, but I think it's a change that Coloradans are ready for," said Maes.
Lee said SB21-273 is currently in the Colorado House of Representatives. He expects it will face opposition.
The Colorado State Legislature is set to adjourn on June 12.