By Jerry Kopel
It's like your garbage can. You expect the garbage to be picked up once a week. What if the garbage truck misses your cans and they won't come back until next week?
What do you do with the new accumulation of garbage? You buy an extra garbage can.
Felony prisoners in Colorado prisons are not garbage and prisons are not garbage cans, but why should you be surprised that our prisons are full and we need more prisons?
This isn't just because we add some new prisoners. It's because we are keeping PRESENT prisoners longer, putting probation violators back in prison for minor rule-breaking, and not assisting released felons in finding adequate employment.
In 2004, State Rep. Kevin Lundberg (R) and Sen. Ron Teck (R), not exactly "bleeding heart" liberals, carried HB 1165 related to monetary crimes, not crimes of violence. Their bill passed the legislature providing a Class 4 felony would apply for monetary crimes between a minimum of $675 to a maximum of less than $20,000, and a Class 3 felony for monetary crimes of $20,000 or more.
Gov. Bill Owens vetoed their bill, even though as a legislator he voted to raise the minimum and maximum monetary numbers in 1984 and 1992.
Sen. Dan Grossman (D) and Sen. Lynn Hefley (R) in 2006 used the Lundberg-Teck approach to raise the Class 3 minimum ante in Senate Bill 222 from $15,000 to $20,000. The bill passed the Senate 31 to 4, the four being Sen. Dyer, Evans, Lamborn, and Traylor.
So 18 Senate Democrats and 13 Senate Republicans decided on May 1, 2006 to try to stem the increase in state prison population. The bill died in House Judiciary Committee the following day, thus denying Gov. Owens the opportunity to veto the bill a second time.
The big question is whom to sentence to a Class 3 or Class 4 felony. A Class 4 felony is two to four years, a Class 3 felony is four to twelve years. The separation last happened in 1992 under HB 1297 carried by Sen. Tom Blickensderfer (R) and me, when we raised the threshold from less than $10,000 to less than $15,000.
How much today can a 1992 dollar buy 14 years later? Legislators have until now consistently raised the bar on the highest and lowest felony charged based on inflation.
On the lower end, when does a monetary crime become a felony? In 1953, if the theft was $50 or more, your felony punishment was one to 10 years in the state prison. In 1971 a Class 4 felony began at $100, in 1975, $200. In 1984, it became a felony at $300, in 1992 at $400. In 1997 (under a bill sponsored by two Republicans, Jeanne Adkins and Dottie Wham) it became a felony at $500. Under the vetoed bill in 2004, the felony would have taken place at $675 instead of $500.
The Grossman amended bill made the cut at $625, but increased some of the penalties to Class 1 misdemeanors for amounts of $500 or more. Those penalties would be served in county jails. In my opinion, misdemeanor penalties should apply to money crimes under $1000.
Theft crimes are a large source of the problem. According to a Colorado Bureau of Investigation document reported by the Rocky Mountain News, there were 148,516 larceny and auto theft crimes committed in 2005. According to the report, all other major crimes totaled 78,764.
Larceny and auto theft absolutely should be punished either as misdemeanors or felonies, but dependent on the value stolen. A good number of new cars now sell for $15,000 or more. Should the non-violent theft be punished by a maximum of four years or 12 years, depending on whether the car was worth $15,000?
How many violent criminals escape heavier punishment through plea bargaining because there is no room for them in prison cells occupied by non-violent auto thieves or non-violent larceny felons?
Legislators need the courage to reduce the upper limits of Class 3 to Class 6 felonies. It's hard to do. Your opponents will call you "soft on crime". But legislators can respond by asking what cuts do voters want in health programs, senior citizens support, or highway and school construction, as some examples, to pay for more prisons.
According to testimony before the Joint Budget Committee, the state will need to accommodate 7,000 more prisoners in the next five years at a cost of half a billion dollars. As of June 30, 2005, we had 20,841 felons in prisons.
The 20,841 prisoners means we went from 25th place in the number of prisoners to a tie with Mississippi for 23rd place in 2005 (a fifteen person difference between the two states.) We also had the seventh highest percentage increase (5.5) in the nation.
And we went from 429 prisoners per 100,000 population serving a sentence of more than one year to 447 per 100,000 population, which places us 17th in the nation, a jump from 19th.
What do the candidates for governor plan to do about reducing prison costs? I have not read anything from either Bill Ritter or Bob Beauprez that indicates this problem is on their screen.
(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)
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