Prison Moratorium in Tough-on-Crime Colorado?

While in Arizona, drug policy reformers have successfully reduced the prison population through the ballot box, in Colorado, activists are waging an uphill battle to reduce incarceration the hard way -- passing a prison moratorium bill through a conservative, law and order legislature.

The Colorado Moratorium Project is working with two state legislators, State Senator Dorothy Rupert (D-Boulder) and Representative Penfield Tate (D-North Central Denver) to introduce SB 104, which will ban new prison expansion until July 1, 2003 and establish a 17 member task force to look into alternatives to incarceration. The task force will be composed of state representatives, law enforcement, public defenders and representatives from Human Services and the Department of Corrections.

The project's coordinator, Christie Donner, does not expect the moratorium to get out of the judiciary committee, but believes an amended bill featuring just the task force could get passed by the legislature. Last year the committee passed a similar amended bill with just a six member task force composed of state representatives, but that bill died in the appropriations committee when representatives balked at funding "just another study." Donner told the Week Online that she believes prospects are better this year due her group's public education campaign. "There should be more public pressure. We've been reaching out to the community." Her group has been educating residents about the impact the war on drugs has had in multiplying the number of non-violent criminals in the prison system. She also believes the expanded task force is an improvement because legislators, by themselves, don't have sufficient background to draw up the comprehensive reform the task force will be assigned to do.

The task force will look into how tougher sentencing and the war on drugs have quadrupled Colorado's prison population since 1985. Among the alternatives the task force will be looking at to reduce incarceration include drug treatment, crime prevention, job training, and education.

If the bill passes the legislature this year, Donner worries the state's tough on crime Governor will veto it. Even though prospects are dim, Donner feels the legislation gives her group "an air of credibility and is really good way of raising the issue." She points out fifty community groups and organizations have endorsed the legislation. A large chunk of Colorado's prison expansion can be attributed to the war on drugs. Currently it costs Colorado $63.4 million every year to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders.

When asked whether it would be easier to pass a drug decriminalization initiative via the ballot box then trying to pass a prison moratorium bill through a conservative legislature worried about seeming soft on crime, Donner said her group was looking into supporting an initiative like the one passed in Arizona. "We could bang our heads trying to pass this legislation for a long time. Voters are more sympathetic."

Apparently, voters aren't worried about being soft on crime. There are other prison moratorium groups campaigning around the country including a California group that helps local communities say no to new prison construction and a New York group that is fighting that state's punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws. The New York-based Prison Moratorium Project is online at

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