EDITORIAL: Kudos to Congress for realizing drug addiction isn’t a crime; now it’s Colorado’s turn to change

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Government is learning the hard way that drug use and addiction is not a crime.

Unfortunately, for the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are marred by drug use and then unwisely imprisoned, and the trillions of dollars taxpayers have wasted funding this state and federal folly, the damage is done.

There’s hope, however, that a congressional bill all but certain to become law soon focusing on federal criminal justice reform will help hundreds of thousands of people and save billions of wasted dollars.

The bill passed the Senate this week, is assured success in the House, and has the president’s blessing.

Long overdue, the measure re-examines convicts imprisoned for non-violent offenses, especially those drug-related, and finds ways to get them out of the prison system and back into society. Just as importantly, it provides new guidelines and regulations going forward to help keep drug addicts and others out of prison in the first place.

The proposed changes are hardly revolutionary. Experts across numerous fields have long shown irrefutable research showing that imprisoning people with drug and mental health problems does not prevent crime, it does not reduce crime, it does not reduce recidivism and it does not prevent the behavior that landed these people in prison. What such criminal justice imprudence does do is ruin lives and cost taxpayers an ocean of wasted money.

Even as a vast majority of lawmakers in Congress demanded this bill, powerful naysayers worked hard to scuttle it, hanging onto a totally false narrative that tough laws and sentences as part of the ludicrous War on Drugs make America a safer place.

It was an expensive and hurtful fable.

And, unfortunately, it’s one that Colorado has yet to dispel.

This criminal justice reform bill affects only federal courts and prisons. Colorado’s state prison industry has long been out of control, and is even more in need of similar reforms.

Colorado keeps an astounding 20,000 or so state prisoners, costing taxpayers about $40,000 a year each, for a total tab of about $1 billion a year.

A recent Colorado ACLU project, Blueprint for Smart Justice, revealed that the largest growth in Colorado’s state prison population has been from inmates convicted of drug crimes.

“The war on drugs continues to play an outsized role in fueling Colorado’s prison population and, in turn, its prison budget,” said Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition Executive Director Christie Donner in September.

The ACLU is part of that coalition, and their research corroborated the fact that tough drug sentencing laws are damaging to everyone and wasteful.

They are especially cruel and injurious to women and minorities in Colorado, who exhibit higher rates of illegal-drug use addiction.

For a fraction of the cost, Colorado can provide effective treatment for drug users and mentally ill residents who run afoul of the law, current and historical research has shown repeatedly.

The September 2018 ACLU report goes beyond just drug sentencing reform. The analysis shows how Colorado can realistically and relatively quickly reduce the state’s prison population by about 10,000 inmates at a savings of almost $700 million.

Reforms proposed by the ACLU, as part of a national project that looks very much like what Congress is poised to approve this week, offer proven ideas for alternatives to prison for a wide range of crimes, including burglary, assault, fraud and even robbery.

Much of the common-sense reform focuses on vastly reducing prison sentences and instead utilizing parole and treatment systems. The adage that non-criminal inmates learn to become criminals in prison rings true on a variety of levels, simply because warehousing drug addicts worsens their outcome, and then turns that worsened situation back onto the community.

Congress deserves praise and support for finally making a common-sense start toward long overdue criminal justice reform.

It’s now time for Colorado, with a new legislature and governor, to follow suit and quickly implement its own comprehensive reforms based on the same irrefutable logic and research that are poised to changed federal law.