This past legislative session, Colorado took a small step away from “tough on crime” era punishment and scaled back mandatory minimum sentences for second degree assault and bail bond violations. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed SB 16-102 into law May 19.
Under the old law, a judge was bound to sentence people to time in prison if they were convicted of second degree assault, or if they failed to appear on a court date for a criminal offense.
In addition, the new law gives judges discretion to consider the specific circumstances of a crime and decide if incarceration is the appropriate punishment for an offender.
Mandatory minimum sentences created a “heavy hammer” hanging over the head of offenders, causing them to plead to a sentence that was not in their interest or in the interest of society, bill sponsor Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Jefferson County, testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in February.
In the “tough on crime spree” of the past, the legislature didn’t recognize the cost to society or taxpayers of sentencing people who made a mistake to a long prison sentence, Kerr said.
Second degree assault is a broad category of crime, and most of the individuals caught up in the charge don’t have a criminal history, testified Carrie Thompson representing the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar in support of the bill.
However, District Attorney for the 18th Judicial District George Brauchler testified strongly against the bill on behalf of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council and the Denver District Attorney.
Judges should not be trusted with such a large amount of discretion because they’re the least accountable members of the criminal justice system and may not even have criminal justice experience when they’re appointed, Brauchler testified. That’s why mandatory minimums were implemented in the first place, he said.
“Judges could not be trusted to impose the sentences that Coloradans thought were appropriate for some of the worst of the worst crimes,” he said.
Colorado’s prison population skyrocketed more than 637 percent between 1985 and 2009 as a result of the 1985 Mielke-Arnold Bill (HB85-1320), which doubled sentence lengths for felonies. General Fund appropriations to the Department of Corrections increased 552 percent in that period adjusting for inflation, up to $332.6 million, according to the legislative Joint Budget Committee.
Learn more about the impact of the criminal justice system on Coloradans and their families in the Rocky Mountain PBS documentary, A Sentenced Life.