DENVER, Colo. (KRDO) -- A Colorado group, Advance Colorado, is trying to get a ballot question to the voters in 2024 concerning how long violent criminals must stay in prison before they become eligible for parole. If passed, the group hopes this ballot measure will increase truth in sentencing in Colorado.
Current Colorado law allows people convicted of most crimes that are considered non-violent to be parole eligible at 50% of the time served in prison. When you factor in any pre-sentence time served in county jails, that time spent in prison is often lower than 50%. Colorado law dictates that people convicted of violent crimes, like kidnapping, sexual assault, 2nd-degree murder, and 1st-degree burglary require that person stay in prison for 75% of their sentence before becoming parole eligible.
Now, Advance Colorado, wants to change the law by mandating 85% time served for the aforementioned violent crimes. Additionally, they are proposing a change that if a person has been twice convicted of a violent crime, they are required to spend their entire sentence in prison before being released. This ballot initiative has been labeled #71 as it moves through the Title Board with the Colorado Secretary of State's office.
Michael Fields, President of Advance Colorado Institute, said a specific 13 Investigates report on this topic caught his eye back in March. The report detailed how a man previously convicted of multiple burglaries and sentenced to in total 47 years in prison, was out of prison in eight years. At the time of the report, Eric Garcia was facing five additional felony charges tied to five different armed robberies at Colorado Springs gas stations. He has since been convicted and sentenced to an additional 36 years in prison.
"There were some stories that came out showing that violent criminals were getting out at under half of their sentence and so we did a little research and figured out that the average violent criminal gets out at 43% of their sentence," Fields said.
Fields said his proposal, lengthening the parole eligibility, has support across the state. He adds that the average citizen is likely completely unaware that proven criminals are being released well before their sentence ends.
"We have the fourth worst recidivism rate in the country. I went to law school. I thought I understood this stuff. And then you're looking at the numbers. You're like, how does this happen," Fields questioned.
However, not every group is on the board with the idea. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Colorado is strongly against the proposal, arguing that it won't help reduce crime rates in Colorado.
"We think Initiative 71 is a very bad idea for Colorado. It's likely to be a giveaway to private prison corporations. It would needlessly increase our prison population. It would cost taxpayers millions of dollars and not result in any public safety benefit," ACLU Colorado Director of Advocacy, Taylor Pendergrass said.
The ACLU believes that existing Colorado law has hit the sweet spot concerning parole eligibility. Pendergrass says forcing someone to serve at least 75% of their sentence before being able to go before the Colorado Parole Board, which has no requirement to release anyone, has been beneficial.
"What current policy also makes sure happens is that we're not needlessly locking up people, that the Colorado Department of Corrections and prison officials all agree can be released safety with no threat of re-offending," Pendergrass said. "71 is increasing the time that people would have to serve sentences for no real reason, no real benefit at all."
Advance Colorado is now tasked with collecting 125,000 citizens' signatures, a requirement to get this question on the 2024 ballot. If they do that by next August, Fields says he's hopeful the voters will side with them and restore "truth in sentencing."
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