Lauen’s efforts to reform prison sentences in Colorado ended up being right after all


Roger Lauen was a man before his time. Back in the 70s he was one of the few to stand up against the growing movement to pass harsher sentencing laws, build more prisons and expand Colorado’s prison population which had increased ten-fold from about 2,000 prisoners to over 20,000. Those were the years of “getting tough to get elected.”

In his desire to find alternatives like community corrections, he was joined by Sen. Ralph Cole, the long-time Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman from Arapahoe County. This was truly an odd couple, the young and ultra-liberal Lauen and the white haired, striking, but very stern and conservative Cole. They met at an interim committee meeting on criminal justice to which Roger brought some work release inmates from Camp George West. Some of the committee members were horrified but not Senator Cole. The two of them immediately clicked. How these two opposites managed to hit it off so well was always a mystery but the way they were able to collaborate was a model of the kind of cooperation it takes to make government work.

Roger had a long history of standing his ground and backing up his beliefs with action, no matter what the risks. For example, he signed up to go to Mississippi in 1964 to work with SNCC in the civil rights movement. On June 21 of that year, three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were kidnapped near Philadelphia, Mississippi. (Their bodies were found on Au. 4.) This caused many civil rights workers to drop their plans to go to Mississippi but Roger went ahead anyway and worked in Jackson for the summer.

In Colorado, the “get tough” tidal wave swept away his efforts and those of Senator Cole but Colorado has now recognized the extraordinary costs — both human and financial — of this policy and the prison population is declining. Think, however, of how different Colorado’s budgets would have been if more had listened
to Roger and Senator Cole those years ago!

Last year, Roger and I met up in Arizona where he and his wonderful wife Jane had been spending the winters. Our goal was to tour the border with a group called Humane Borders but it snowed and their trip was cancelled so we went to Nogales, Mex. instead. Driving south from the city, we came across an area of small “capillas” or shrines dedicated to La Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death, thought by many to be a saint that protects drug dealers. It’s a fascinating spot where battered cars come lurching off the highway and young men and women jump out to pay their respects to the saint. For the most part, they aren’t drug dealers at all; just people who can’t find relief in more orthodox churches. Roger was sympathetic to people like that, people who had struggles but were trying to work through them.

On June 8, he wrote to say that he had just need diagnosed with AML or acute myeloid leukemia. He wrote on Nov. 4, however, to say that he was getting his old “feisty” back and preparing to return to Arizona. So we began to plan another border trip. As I returned from Juárez on Dec. 14, I decided to call him and tell him that this was where we should go. Instead there was a message from Jane. He had had a relapse and was gone.

His is not a household name and many of the people who worked with him are now gone. He is, however, an example of someone who stuck to their beliefs. Now that Colorado is reducing its prison numbers, those beliefs have been vindicated.

Columnist Morgan Smith is a former state representative and also served as Commissioner of Agriculture. He can be reached at

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