Colorado lawmakers hope for criminal justice reform trickle-down with First Step Act

December 27, 2018, 1:10 pm

Colorado lawmakers and advocates are hoping the passage of the federal First Step criminal justice reform bill by both chambers of Congress and signature by President Donald Trump last week will have a spillover effect at the state level, where the majority of inmates are incarcerated.

Both of Colorado’s U.S. senators, Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner, voted in favor of the bill (pdf), known as the First Step Act, that would ease sentencing for some non-violent federal crimes and could see thousands of federal prisoners released earlier than scheduled.

The law, which was overwhelmingly approved in the Senate on a bipartisan basis by an 87-12 vote, only impacts the 180,000 or so inmates in federal prisons. The vast majority of the nation’s more than 2 million prisoners are being held in state and local prisons. The United States has the second highest incarceration rate (593 prisoners per 100,000 people) in the world.

Supporters of the legislation, however, hope the federal government enacting the first meaningful criminal justice reform in decades will continue a trend of sentencing reduction, workforce training and anti-recidivism programs being enacted at the state level.

Bennet, a co-sponsor of the bill, issued this statement via a spokeswoman: “This bill is the result of principled bipartisan compromise — regrettably a rare sight in today’s Senate — that has earned broad support from both the law enforcement community and criminal justice reform advocates. These reforms are a first step in a longer effort to reduce mass incarceration and restore faith in our justice system.”

The Senate bill was approved by the House, which passed its own version in May. Trump was a big supporter of the bill during the legislative process, according to recent tweets:

“America is the greatest Country in the world and my job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes. Congratulations to the Senate on the bi-partisan passing of a historic Criminal Justice Reform Bill. This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it. In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!”

Gardner tried to attach an amendment dealing with the discrepancy between federal and state marijuana laws.

“Over 95% of the US population lives in a state where some form of marijuana is legal,” Gardner tweeted. “This isn’t a fluke, the American people have spoken and this is happening. My amendment to the First Step Act has been blocked, but I will not give up this fight.”

Gardner had hoped to attach as an amendment a version of a separate law he and Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed that would allow banks to do business with marijuana retailers in states where it’s been legalized, even though pot remains illegal at the federal level.

Low-level drug offenses remain one of the biggest reasons for the jump in U.S. incarceration rates in recent decades.

According to a recently released report by the tech industry group and Cornell University, nearly half of all adults in the United States – or approximately 113 million people — have an immediate family member who has spent time behind bars.

“These numbers are stunning, all the more so if you think of them not as numbers but as stories like mine,” said Felicity Rose, the director of research and policy for criminal justice reform whose father spent time in prison on drug charges in California.

“One of the worst parts of growing up with my father in and out of prison was the isolation and shame I felt,” Rose added. “I hope that this new research energizes reform efforts and that it can help the millions of people who have also experienced family incarceration feel a little less alone this holiday season.”

The report found that Colorado has the 24th highest imprisonment rate in the United States, with just under 20,000 people in prison around the state. is focused on criminal justice reform at the state level and did not take a position on the First Step Act.

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David O. Williams
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington),, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of and

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