COLUMN: ‘Truth in sentencing’ initiative is common sense

Last Friday, Derron Harris accepted a plea bargain from the Denver D.A.’s office for his murder of an Ohio man and the shooting of his wife while they rented a car. Headlines announced that Harris faced “up to 60 years” in prison. Nonsense. Harris, like every violent criminal who is not convicted of first-degree murder, will become parole eligible in less than half that time, but nobody can say exactly when.

Successive liberal governors (John Hickenlooper and Jared Polis) and their legislatures have put in place policies and laws that have steadily reduced Colorado’s prison population over the past decade. Such policies have resulted in Colorado’s prison population decreasing from roughly 17,000 inmates a decade ago to 15,000 last year, despite rapidly increasingly crime and population over the same period.

Our laws are weak. Colorado statutes plainly dictate that an offender sentenced to prison for conviction of a violent crime must serve 75 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole. That is 100 percent fake. In reality, Colorado has so watered down its sentencing structure with good time, earned time, finally got an education time, didn’t stab your inmate this week time, getting ready to transition into a half-way house time, coloring book time and many other sentence reductions for who-knows-what, nobody knows the minimum sentence a violent felon will spend in prison before joining us back on our streets. Not the judge, prosecutor, defendant, victims…not even the executive director of the Department of Corrections can tell us that minimum number. That is a dysfunctional system disconnected from justice and transparency. It is broken.

Here is how the legislature has worked to put an increasing number of violent criminals back into our community under this mysterious system. In 2021, under the leadership of the Democrats and signature of Polis, the legislature reduced felony murder from a guaranteed life sentence to a guaranteed parole-eligible sentence. Last year, that same Democrat team of crime apologists considered treating extreme indifference murder — the kind committed by the Aurora Theater mass murderer — the same way. Those changes would result in a sentence as low as 16 years in prison and no more than 48 for an average murderer. BTW, those are also fake numbers. These convicted murderers can be parole eligible in as little as eight years.

Colorado deserves better, and under a proposed initiative to be placed on the 2024 ballot, Colorado will do better. Initiative 71 (as it is currently entitled) would mandate that violent criminals spend at least 85 percent of their earned sentences in prison before re-entering our neighborhoods. In addition to a far better reflection of justice, there is the justice that flows from offender, victim, attorney and community knowing the minimum amount of time a criminal will spend in prison. No rational person can oppose that kind of predictable accountability.

This is another reason the initiative process is critical for a self-governing people to serve as a check against a legislature that values criminals over victims. Expect the party of violent crime to attempt to derail this initiative. Again.

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Just last year, a similar initiative was offered to be placed on the ballot for our consideration along-side the many elected law enforcers seeking re-election. The language of the voter-driven initiative was forced to be reviewed and approved by a title board — a procedure that legislature-driven initiatives do not have to endure. The board is comprised of three representatives of Attorney General Weiser, Secretary of State Jenna Griswold and the office of Legislative Council.

Two are high-profile Democrats who — along with Polis and Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet — were going to appear on the same ballot as this crime-focused initiative. For Weiser, who notoriously championed allowing repeat car thieves to remain in our parking lots until they had “stolen three or four cars in a three month period”; Polis, who reduced the sentence of the semi-truck driver convicted of killing four and setting on fire several others, and numerous other Dems — having crime on the ballot with their names could prove distracting from the message of “crime isn’t that bad here.”

So, in a move nobody could remember happening before or since, Weiser replaced his normal title board representative at the last minute with the solicitor general, who showed up, voted to cripple the initiatives’ ability to be on the ballot, and then he left the title board, never to been seen again. Mission accomplished.

The initiative headed for the 2024 ballot — the ballot Weiser is not on — has already fared much better in front of the title board.

A fiscal analysis of the initiative — which will impact about 449 convicted violent felons — states that “[l]onger prison sentences will reduce workforce participation, which may reduce economic activity from labor and spending and may increase government spending on prisons and social welfare programs.” It is difficult to imagine the level of “workforce participation” of those inclined to commit violent acts against others, but it must be more than zero. Given Colorado’s ranking as fourth-worst in America for recidivism — and the finding in the Common Sense Institute’s most recent “Cost of Crime” report that crime has a $27 billion economic impact on Colorado — this citizen-led initiative is not just common sense, it is jillions of cents.

George Brauchler is the former district attorney for the 18th Judicial District. He also is an Owens Early Criminal Justice Fellow at the Common Sense Institute and president of the Advance Colorado Academy, which identifies, trains and connects conservative leaders in Colorado. He hosts “The George Brauchler Show” on 710KNUS Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeBrauchler.


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