Sen. Irene Aguilar, a Denver Democrat and medical doctor, said she was “very nervous” going into Wednesday’s hearing. Rightly so. She had two bills to present and the direct beneficiaries of her bills don’t have many defenders at the Capitol — or anywhere else for that matter.
Aguilar introduced Senate Bill 87 with a case study. The case unfolded in Boulder on St Patrick’s Day in 2014, when a Colorado University student was put on trial for “raping a drunken woman he pretended to be caring for,” as Aguilar explained. The accused, Austin Wilkerson, was convicted, but the judge, wary of Colorado’s sentencing laws, went light on him.
Wilkerson was only 22 years old. The judge, citing Colorado sex-offender sentencing laws, said he feared Wilkerson might never be let out of prison. He sentenced Wilkerson to 20 years probation and 2 years in which he would spend his nights in the Boulder jail and his days attending classes.
The light sentence fueled public outrage. It also spurred observers to reconsider Colorado’s tough sex crime sentencing. As a 2016 Boulder Daily Camera headline put it: “Is Colorado’s indeterminate sentencing law keeping rapists out of prison?”
Aguilar explained that sex crime sentencing is tied to the 1998 Colorado Lifetime Supervision Act, which is based on the presumption that sex offenders are likely to continue to commit sex crimes. The act required sex offenders stay behind bars for as long as it takes for them to be rated unlikely to offend again.
But Aguilar said treatment in prison is limited and so there’s no guarantee that high-risk offenders will ever be rehabilitated nor that low-risk offenders aren’t simply wasting away behind bars.
The judge in the Boulder case was convinced that Wilkerson would be simply “warehoused” in prison and that the outcome of the trial and conviction would end in no “good result for anybody” involved in the case.
So let’s allow judges to impose sentences that fit the crime, was Aguilar’s argument. That way, more victims would be more likely to see their rapists serve real time — if not life imprisonment.
Aguilar’s bill drew no cosponsors on the right or the left. It had only one supporter on the committee. Daniel Kagan, a Cherry Hills Democrat, thought justice would be “massively enhanced” by passing the bill. He voted in favor, “not for leniency, but for discretion and greater justice,” he said. Aurora Democrat Rhonda Fields joined the three Republicans on the committee to kill the bill.
Aguilar’s Senate Bill 141 came next on the docket. It was related to the first. The bill proposed that low-risk offenders should be allowed to exit prison and receive the treatment they are sentenced to receive in the outside world. As it is, the backlog of prisoners going without therapy is a waste of taxpayer money, said Aguilar. “In 2015 there were 1,979 inmates on the referral list awaiting treatment, a 30 percent increase since 2012… And 57 percent of those inmates have been rated low-risk.”
Committee members made no comments at closing. The proposal was voted down along party lines.
There are good bills and bad bills and there are bills that are just politically impossible to pass.