The 30-member Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which for nearly two decades helped guide the legislature on criminal justice policy, was shut down Sunday by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.
The decision comes less than 36 hours before the state’s lawmaking term ends Monday.
Formed by state lawmakers in 2007, the commission, known as the CCJJ, was the brainchild of then-Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat who before leading the state served as Denver’s district attorney.
The panel is made up of legislators, prosecutors, representatives of the court and community members and was intended to help remove partisanship from the process of drafting criminal justice reform policy. Members of the panel are appointed by the governor, the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court and legislative leadership.
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The commission in recent years led a rewrite of the state’s criminal code to downgrade the penalties for misdemeanors and reclassify a number of crimes as lower-level offenses. This year, three bills debated in the legislature originated in the CCJJ, including a rewrite of the state’s auto theft laws.
But progressive Democrats in the General Assembly this year began to have doubts about the commission.
CCJJ was up for reauthorization this year, and criminal justice reform advocates seized on the occasion to push for the panel to be disbanded. Opponents of the commission said it lacked racial diversity and had become too favorable to prosecutors, serving as a roadblock to change.
Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and criminal justice reformer who sits on the commission, said Sunday night she initially found the CCJJ to be a place where a committed group of people could work on policy to move Colorado forward. But her opinion changed.
“It was my understanding that the CCJJ was meant to be a place free from politics where you could dive into issues, as difficult or complicated or nuanced as they may be,” said Gonzales, who was one of the leading voices pushing for the commission to be disbanded. “But increasingly CCJJ became a place where we, as a legislature, sent things that we didn’t really want to study or wanted to slow down.”
Gonzales said she and others had concerns there wasn’t enough racial or geographic diversity on the panel, nor enough people who had “lived experience” with the criminal justice system.
Senate Bill 158, a measure reauthorizing the commission, was rejected by the House Judiciary Committee on Sunday afternoon on a party-line vote, with nine members of the panel rejecting the legislation and four voting to advance it.
Rep. Steven Woodrow, a Denver Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, was one of the nine representatives who voted against continuing the commission.
“As well intentioned as CCJJ might have been at some point, it’s often used as a sword and shield and as a filter blocking progress and progress is needed,” he said.
Rep. Bob Marshall, a Highlands Ranch Democrat and attorney on the Judiciary Committee, said he had planned to vote to continue the commission until he had a conversation with former House Speaker Terrance Carroll, a Denver Democrat who sponsored the bill forming the commission.
“My progressive colleagues weren’t thrilled with what was coming out of it but to me that’s the wrong reason to not re-authorize it,” Marshall said. “It was pretty clear it was becoming an extra obstacle for the legislature to do its job, rather than an assistant.”
Carroll tweeted Sunday that it was time to shut down the CCJJ. “It is time for it to sunset,” he said. “It was NOT intended to be permanent.”
The Colorado District Attorneys’ Council and Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police were lobbying for the continuation of the commission.
“It is incredibly disappointing and puzzling that the same House Judiciary Committee that just last week openly lauded the importance and value of the long history of success and collaboration of the CCJJ … now finds, in a party-line vote, that the commission is unworthy of continuation,” said Tom Raynes, who leads the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council.
The ACLU of Colorado, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and Colorado Freedom Fund opposed reauthorizing the panel.
Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican who sits on the CCJJ and wanted to see it reauthorized, said he was disappointed by the vote Sunday night.
“CCJJ has done a lot of good work and I think the movement to not reauthorize it is about wanting to get ahold of the process from the progress-liberal-justice-reform-left,” he said. “My sense is that those who wanted CCJJ to not be reauthorized — wanted it to go away — found it to be a roadblock to their progressive, liberal ideas.”
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Gardner said he’s worried the Democratic legislature’s potential replacement for the CCJJ will be too one-sided.
“I think now we’ll have a very partisan task force,” he said.
Gonzales said she hopes the legislature comes up with an alternative to the CCJJ.
“Nobody that i’m talking to — and certainly I’m not saying — (is saying) that we shouldn’t have a space to have difficult conversations outside of the legislature,” she said. “Nobody is saying that. But the structure, the venue and the format of those discussions — we can now have a conversation about what that should look like.”
The CCJJ will continue to operate until September.