I spent much of my career working for justice and prosecuting crime. As a former district attorney, I’ve seen how crime victims suffer. And I’ve worked to prosecute criminals and hold them accountable. And as part of the original team that stood up the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, I am committed to fact-based, data-driven, and responsible solutions for public safety.
With crime on the rise, we deserve an honest conversation about criminal justice policy. Crime is rising in both blue and red states, urban and rural communities, red and blue cities.
Unfortunately, during election season, it’s all too easy to use public safety as a political talking point, and push falsehoods, cherry-picked statistics, and less than reputable sources. We undermine our policymaking process when we allow empty talking points to pick up steam and threaten responsible problem solving.
This campaign season, I’ve read too many empty talking points and too many distortions of how we got where we are. To lay the groundwork for an honest discussion, let me take a minute to set the record straight on a few points.
First, not a day goes by when some party official or candidate repeats the claim that Colorado is #2 in the country for fentanyl overdose deaths. So I looked up whether that’s accurate.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most recent annual data on drug overdoses shows Colorado is #29 in statewide overdose deaths per 100,000 persons (West Virginia is #1) and #24 in total deaths (California is #1). According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Colorado is #26 for synthetic opioids and fentanyl deaths (Florida is #1).
Statistics aside, the rise in fentanyl deaths is devastating families across the country. Combating this poison deserves our elected leaders’ strongest attention and significant resources. But we need sound data and honest discussions to tackle this challenge the right way.
Then there’s the claim that a bill passed by the General Assembly in 2021 made it a misdemeanor to steal cheaper cars and a felony to steal expensive ones. Those pushing this claim allege that this bill is one of the chief reasons for rising car thefts.
The truth: The law establishing different penalties for car theft based on vehicle value has been on the books for decades. It was first enacted in 1999 by a Republican legislature. And it was subsequently amended to adjust the car value cut-off for penalties.
The 2021 bill was yet another adjustment to the dollar value cut-off — and that bill went through the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice process with broad support, including support from the state’s district attorneys. On top of that, the 2021 law didn’t even take effect until well into 2022, yet some illogically argue that this bill, which wasn’t even a law until just a few months ago, accounts for a rise in car thefts going back many years.
Another falsehood is that a 2019 bill, HB 19-1263, “decriminalized” fentanyl. Not true.
“Decriminalization” makes an activity legal, like the voters did with marijuana legalization. By contrast, “defelonization” lowers a crime’s penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor. The truth is that HB 19-1263 made the possession of 0 to 4 grams of fentanyl a misdemeanor instead of a felony offense. It did not decriminalize fentanyl possession. Reasonable people can disagree on the wisdom of that change in the drug possession law, but the debate should be based on facts.
And there’s the constant refrain that one political party at the Capitol is the sole culprit for bills we are told are driving crime increases.
One, it’s a gross oversimplification that an issue as complex as crime can be directly traced to one, two, or three bills, rather than a series of variables that include economic factors, job availability, housing insecurity, mental health treatment options, the pandemic, and so on.
And two, when it comes to one political party trying to blame another, the truth is that each of the bills I mentioned above were passed with bipartisan majorities, with bipartisan sponsors, and some passed unanimously and went through the rigorous Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice process.
All candidates for office — especially those who are attorneys obligated to speak with candor and honesty — should avoid playing political games with public safety. Unfortunately, when public safety policies get mixed up with politics, you just get politics. Colorado voters deserve better.
Bill Ritter, of Denver, was Colorado governor 2007-2011, and Denver district attorney 1993-2005.
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