Meth misdemeanor bill backer disputes John Suthers, state meth task force

Categories: Politics

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Colorado Attorney General John Suthers is currently in Washington, D.C. for U.S. Supreme Court hearings on the Affordable Care Act. But in his absence, his office registered his objections to Senate Bill 12-163, which would, among other things, make possession of meth a misdemeanor rather than a class-six felony. However, a supporter of the measure thinks his criticism is off-base.

Suthers is chairman of the Colorado Methamphetamine Task Force, which unanimously voted to oppose the bill during a March 23 meeting. Why? According to an AG's office release, the legislation, which would cover other Schedule I and Schedule II drugs on top of meth, "seeks to solve a problem that largely does not exist: first-time drug offenders being sentenced to prison. The legislation instead would only eliminate prison sentences for a small percentage of offenders.

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John Suthers.
"State statistics show that 51.71 percent of those charged with a class-six felony drug possession are given a deferred judgment, which permits a defendant to avoid the effects of a felony conviction by completing a period of supervision and treatment," the release continues. "The high success rate of offenders each year is motivated almost exclusively by the desire to avoid having a felony conviction on their records. By removing this motivation and making the sanction a misdemeanor, fewer people will engage in treatment or successfully address their substance abuse issues."

These arguments don't persuade Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, as well as a strong supporter of SB 163, a bipartisan bill sponsored in the Senate by Democrat Pat Steadman and Republican Shawn Mitchell.

"We've been working on drug policy reform for over a decade," Donner says, "and this seemed to be the next logical step -- to really get serious about redesigning our approach with regard to low-level drug offenders convicted of drug possession by lowering the sentences, capturing the cost-savings from corrections and investing it into treatment. And that's all this bill does. It isn't looking at making any changes to drug distribution laws or anything like that.

"Research is really clear that treatment is a much better strategy to reduce addiction, and the crimes associated with addiction, than putting someone into prison," she adds. "And there's actually no research that supports the position that threatening someone with a felony conviction is a motivator for them to stay in treatment. Addiction, by definition, is to continue to do a specific behavior -- in this case, using illegal drugs -- despite negative consequences. So the position is actually counter-intuitive. Addicts aren't sitting there thinking, 'I'll stop using drugs if they put me in prison, but I won't stop using drugs if they put me in jail.' And that's the main change in the bill."

Page down to read more of Christie Donner's take on the bill.

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