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A slew of new laws seek to reform Colorado’s criminal justice system

July 12, 2021, 5:41 pm
eagle county justice center
The Eagle County Justice Center in Eagle.

A requirement that bond hearings occur within 48 hours of arrest. A push to recalibrate the punishments for misdemeanor crimes. An effort to allow more people to seal their criminal records to leave their worst mistakes behind them. Banning law enforcement from directing medical professionals to use the powerful sedative ketamine.

These are a few of Colorado’s newest laws that seek to reform the state’s criminal justice system at various points in the process. State lawmakers wrapped up their latest legislative session on June 8, and in the weeks that followed, Gov. Jared Polis has been signing bills into law.

“To build a better Colorado for all, our criminal justice system should promote public safety, reduce crime, and treat every individual with fairness, equality, and dignity in every interaction and at all stages,” said Polis in a written statement. “We have made historic progress in addressing inequities that exist in our criminal and juvenile justice system and ensuring trust and accountability in policing.”

Here’s an overview of some of the most impactful criminal justice bills that become law this year:

Changes to bond hearings

House Bill 21-1280, ensures that bond hearings are set within 48 hours of someone being arrested. A bond hearing is where a judge decides if a person should be released from police custody while a criminal case is pending.

The new law requires people to be released from custody within six hours after bond is set and receive clear notice of rights regarding bond payment and release procedures. Under the new law, each judicial district is also required to establish a way to pay bond online by Jan. 1, 2022.

The law creates a grant program to assist smaller district attorney offices cover the costs associated with holding bond hearings during the weekends.

Another bill signed into law related to bonds, Senate Bill 21-71, prohibits a court from issuing to a juvenile a monetary or property bond in order to be released from police custody. The bill also reduces the number of detention beds available in the state from 327 beds to 215 beds in an attempt to incarcerate fewer children. Lawmakers originally proposed a 188 bed cap.

An overhaul of the state’s misdemeanor sentencing laws

Lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill this year that overhauls and restructures the state’s misdemeanor sentencing laws — an effort that hasn’t occurred in a comprehensive way since 1985, according to the bill sponsors.

The law eliminates duplicate misdemeanor offenses, removes ones that are rarely used and recalibrates the punishments that have historically been given for corresponding offenses. The changes will not go into effect until March 1, 2022, to give law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys time to update their operations.

Offense classifications and their corresponding sentence lengths are a key driver of Colorado’s prison population, which increased seven-fold between 1980 and 2016 as a result of a slew of policy changes that created new crimes and dramatically increased prison sentences for existing ones, according to a 2018 report by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The legislation was put forth by the state’s Sentencing Reform Task Force, which will continue its work throughout the summer and fall to have legislation drafted for next session related to the state’s felony sentencing laws.

New misdemeanor sentencing grid
Misdemeanor 1    Up to 364 days in jail, $1,000
Misdemeanor 2Up to 120 days in jail, up to $750
Petty OffenseUp to 10 days in jail, up to $300 fine
Civil InfractionUp to $100 fine
Previous misdemeanor sentencing grid
Misdemeanor 1Up to 18 months in jail, $5,000
Misdemeanor 2Up to 12 months in jail, $1,000
Misdemeanor 3Up to 6 months in jail, $750
Petty Offense 1Up to 6 months in jail
Petty Offense 2$100 fine

More people able to seal their criminal records

A new law creates an automatic sealing process for arrest records when no criminal charges are filed. 

“This new law will allow Coloradans who’ve committed lower level offenses to leave their past behind and access housing, employment and other necessities without fear of being turned away because of their records,” said state Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat who helped craft the legislation, in a written statement.

For arrests without a conviction on or after Jan. 1, 2022, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation will automatically seal an arrest record after a year if a criminal charge hasn’t been filed. For records of arrests before Jan. 1, 2022, CBI will seal arrest records for felony offenses after three years if no charges were filed and for misdemeanors, traffic and petty offenses or municipal violations after 18 months. If charges are ultimately filed, the records will be unsealed. 

Arrest records for felony offenses with a statute of limitations greater than three years are not eligible for sealing under the legislation, and treatment providers for sex offenders and domestic abusers would have access to sealed arrest records. Sealing also cannot occur if the petitioner owes restitution, fines, court costs, late fees, or other fees, according to the bill.

Drug convictions will be eligible to be automatically sealed if seven years have passed since a petty offense or misdemeanor case, or 10 years after a felony conviction. The state court administrator is required to compile an initial list by Feb. 1, 2024, of all those who are eligible, and records will be sealed by July 1, 2024.

Restriction on the use of solitary confinement in state’s largest jails

Though the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days was formally banned in 2017 in Colorado state prisons, the practice of holding inmates in isolation for more than 22 hours per day remains common in the state’s city and county jails.

A new law, House Bill 21-1211, seeks to significantly restrict the use of solitary confinement in jails for those with mental health diagnoses or neurocognitive impairments, juveniles, people who are pregnant or in the postpartum period, or people who have intellectual or developmental disabilities. 

The bill establishes statewide standards for documenting when and why the practice is used by deputies and includes a provision that jail staff must notify a family member, legal guardian or legal representative within 12 hours of a person being placed in solitary confinement.

Currently, the law only impacts Colorado jails that have 400 or more beds, which would include 12 counties: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer, Mesa, Pueblo, Teller and Weld counties, according to the state’s jail data dashboard.

Limiting fees and fines for low-income Coloradans

Two bills signed into law this year seek to reduce the financial burden court fees and fines have on low-income people involved in the criminal justice system.

House Bill 21-1315 bans an array of court fees and fines for juveniles and their families and swiftly wipes away a $58 million backlog of unpaid court fees, according to The Denver Post. The other bill, House Bill 21-1314, removed the Colorado Department of Revenue’s ability to suspend or deny driver’s licenses for accrued debt, including unpaid court fees or tickets.

“Taking away a driver’s license from someone who can’t afford to pay a fine is counterproductive and plain wrong,” Rep. Matt Gray, a Broomfield Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation, said in a written statement. “I’m proud that we were able to get this new law across the finish line this year, ensuring that our approaches to public safety are fair and just.”

<div class="newsroomSidebar "><strong>“Taking away a driver’s license from someone who can’t afford to pay a fine is counterproductive and plain wrong.”</strong>&nbsp;— <em>State Rep. Matt Gray, a Broomfield Democrat</em> </div>

Gray, who is an attorney, was one of two Democrats to vote against a bill that sought to limit arrests and the use of cash bail for people accused of committing low-level, nonviolent offenses. The comprehensive bill died in a House committee.

At the heart of the legislation was a push to reduce the number of people being held in jail while awaiting trial — a group that is disproportionately represented by low-income individuals and people of color. The legislation was a slimmed down version of a more robust bill, Senate Bill 21-62, which Senate Democrats abandoned earlier in the session.

Restrictions on ketamine use, more police accountability

A high profile bill recently signed into law restricts first responders’ ability to administer the powerful sedative ketamine.

House Bill 21-1251 requires emergency medical services providers, in situations with law enforcement present, to administer ketamine only to someone after weighing the individual or after having three trained people estimate the individual’s weight, to make sure the right dose is delivered. The paramedic also is required to try to get verbal permission from the EMS director before administering ketamine.

Outside of a hospital, the law bans first responders from administering ketamine or a similar drug to sedate a suspect, except in cases of a justifiable emergency. The common diagnosis of “excited delirium” does not count as a justifiable emergency, according to the bill.

The law was pushed forward in response to the death of Elijah McClain, a Black man who died in August 2019 after Aurora police violently detained him and medical personnel gave him a high dose of ketamine.

Aurora Fire personnel repeatedly misjudged McClain’s age, height and weight, according to an independent investigation published in February 2021. A paramedic on the scene told investigators that McClain was 30 to 40 years old and approximately 6 feet tall. In reality, McClain was 23 years old, 5-foot-6 and weighed 140 pounds. 

Another bill, House Bill 21-1250, adds additional provisions to last year’s historic police accountability law, which passed as protests were raging across the nation in response to the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

The new law expands the circumstances in which officers must turn on their body cameras and opens up the Colorado State Patrol to more potential lawsuits over officer misconduct, in the same way last year’s bill added civil liability for local law enforcement agencies. Last year’s police accountability law allowed people to sue over police misconduct in state court and precluded qualified immunity as a defense in those cases.

A portion of the introduced bill that sought to more clearly dictate when officers can use force was removed from the final bill.

“I think there is still work to be done in the space around use of force, and a lot of that is not only in words, like in language, but in culture with law enforcement,” said state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Leslie Herod.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

One Response to A slew of new laws seek to reform Colorado’s criminal justice system

  1. Bob Nelson Reply

    July 13, 2021 at 6:59 am

    I think the criminals are going to be very happy with this.

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