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Pueblo County's courthouse on Dec. 12, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Reducing the maximum sentence for some low-level crimes by a single day would help Colorado’s legal immigrants stay off of the federal deportation radar and could lighten the caseload for state and municipal courts.

Under current state law, a Class 2 misdemeanor — which includes offenses ranging from criminal mischief to violating the state’s bingo laws — carries a potential sentence of up to a year in jail.

That’s problematic for immigrants living in the U.S. legally, like those with a visa or legal permanent residency, because being convicted or pleading guilty to a crime that carries a possible sentence of a year or more means they are a target for mandatory deportation.

But under House Bill 1148, headed to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk after passing its last hurdle in the legislature Friday, that year-long maximum sentence would be reduced to 364 days.

“That (year-long potential sentence) rendered somebody, for something as minor as criminal mischief, mandatorily deportable without any ability to argue their case before an immigration judge,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat who was one of the bill’s prime sponsors.

The floor of the Colorado Senate on Jan. 4, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Gonzales worked in immigration law before she was elected. She says she frequently saw Class 2 misdemeanor charges become an immigration problem, making it impossible for people in the U.S. with visas or lawful permanent status able to plead guilty for fear of being deported.

“If someone was charged with a (Class 2) misdemeanor, they would have to take that case all the way to trial because knowing that, as a visa holder or as a lawful permanent resident, they literally couldn’t take that plea,” she said. “These exceptionally minor cases, oftentimes first-time offenses, were forcing people to continue negotiations, prolong court appearances in order to try to reach a resolution that didn’t render their lives destroyed in the United States.”

Gonzales argues that the change will reduce the caseload on courts because more defendants will be resolving their cases more quickly.

House Bill 1148 also would mandate that cities and towns in Colorado could not sentence someone to more than 364 days in jail for committing a municipal offense.

The bill does not impact people living in the U.S. illegally because they are always subject to deportation, regardless of whether they commit a criminal offense or not.

A similar piece of legislation was rejected in the statehouse last year following pushback in the Republican-controlled state Senate over concerns that it was a so-called sanctuary policy. This year’s version, however, had significant bipartisan support.

When it cleared the state Senate Friday on a 24-11 vote there were a handful of Republicans included in the “yes” column.

According to nonpartisan, state budget analysts, there were 5,819 people convicted of a Class 2 misdemeanor in Colorado last year. As a result of the bill, they expect more defendants to plead guilty to their charges, potentially decreasing jail costs.

If Polis signs the bill into law, it will go into effect on Aug. 2. Passing the legislation is a top priority of immigration advocates at the Colorado Capitol this year, alongside expanding the state’s troubled driver’s license program for people living in the U.S. unlawfully.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — jesse@coloradosun.com Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The...