A commission of Colorado criminal justice leaders voted Friday to recommend reduced penalties for possessing marijuana and other illegal drugs.
If Colorado legislators adopt the recommendations, possessing up to 4 ounces of marijuana would become a petty offense instead of a criminal misdemeanor, and possessing 8 to 16 ounces would become a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
The Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice also favored lower-level felony charges for possessing a few grams of cocaine or methamphetamine and reducing the charge for illegally possessing various prescription drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. It excepted possession of "date-rape" drugs, which would remain a felony.
The commission is weighing whether to recommend longer jail sentences for drunken drivers convicted of a second or third offense. Some commission members said a Denver Post series on the inconsistent sentencing of persistent drunken drivers led them to favor legislative changes, but no recommendation was made Friday.
The commission was created two years ago to study criminal sentences in Colorado and recommend changes to a legislature struggling with the growing costs of incarceration.
The proposal to reduce penalties for possessing marijuana drew broad support from a commission represented by top law enforcement officials as well as appointees from the legislature and the public defender's office. Of eighteen voting members, 13 supported the proposal, four said they could live with it, and one opposed it.
Some worried that the proposed criminal changes would get intertwined with an anticipated legislative debate about the proliferation of medical-marijuana clinics across the state.
"Are we going to be blurring issues if this is addressed?" asked Department of Public Safety executive director Peter Weir.
"I think we should move forward," Attorney General John Suthers replied. "Marijuana penalties should be reduced, regardless of what happens" with the clinics.
The commission postponed a vote on a proposal to require drunken drivers to spend at least 30 days in jail on a second offense and 60 on a third offense, and undergo treatment during a probation period of at least two years.
The Post series reported that some drunken drivers got no jail time on fourth, fifth or seventh offenses, and others were spared from prison after killing people while driving drunk.
"Those stories have helped support my position" for stricter penalties, said Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson, who headed the commission's DUI committee.
Robinson advocates treating drunken drivers for alcohol problems while they're in jail.
"They sit. They do nothing but watch Oprah, or who else," he said. "We have got to do treatment during incarceration."
The commission also decided to reconsider a proposal to relieve jail overcrowding by reducing penalties for non-alcohol- related cases of driving with a suspended or revoked license.
A legislative audit report last week estimated that 225,000 people are driving illegally in Colorado, and that unlicensed drivers were involved in nearly one-fourth of Colorado's fatal crashes last year.
Weir said he feared lowering the potential jail time for continuing to drive after a revocation or suspension is "significantly out of step with what the public will accept."
By David Olinger
November 14, 2009