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Why are Colorado felony charges disproportionately spiking?

“Something is going on and I don’t think any of us have the answer.”

That is the admittedly unsure response of Colorado criminal justice advocate Christie Donner as to why felony charges being filed by prosecutors are spiking across the state.

There is no question that felony charges being levied have materially ratcheted up over recent measuring periods. In fact, such charges reportedly spiraled by a dramatic 20% in 2018 over the previous two years combined. Notably, that phenomenon has occurred while Colorado’s overall crime rate has remained largely the same.

Although Donner and other commentators lack firm answers, they confidently venture a reasoned guess as to what is centrally influencing the recent rash of felony filings.

And their view solidly coalesces around a single factor: drug addiction.

“The drugs just ratchet up this whole system,” Donner says.

A prosecutor agrees, stating that drugs are “one of the largest contributors to people committing crimes.”

That begs a question, namely this: Is there a better way to address a growing addiction problem and its attendant consequences than by a default criminal justice response that often simply resorts to ever-higher levels of felony charges targeting offenders?

Tom Raynes is a prominent voice on the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council. He says that prison felony outcomes lead to a notably high recidivism rate in Colorado that greatly exceeds the national average.

“We’re doing something wrong,” he says.

Many justice commentators and reformers have been stating precisely the same thing for many years. They note that stringent charging and default lock-up strategies – especially for lower-level and nonviolent drug offenders – are largely self-defeating. In fact, reams of empirical evidence support prison alternatives like drug courts, educational help, job placement, well-supervised probation and other tactics that promote offenders’ community reassimilation.

Candidly, inappropriately sending individuals to prison following conviction for relatively minor drug offenses does not do that. It stigmatizes and embitters inmates, minimizing their opportunities to positively contribute to their communities after release.

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