The circumstances surrounding the recent slaying of Colorado’s prisons chief is causing Republican state lawmakers to have second thoughts on a bill that seeks to change how bail bond violators are punished.
House Bill 1242, a Democratic-sponsored bill that would repeal the mandatory sentencing structure of bail bond violations, had GOP support just last month.
That was then. This is now.
The bill’s fate is up in the air now that Republicans — some of whom voted for the legislation following a recent legislative committee hearing — are voicing opposition to the measure, causing Democratic leadership to yank the bill from being voted on last week.
The bill, which is being sponsored by Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, would give judges and prosecutors discretion in how they punish people who violate their release conditions while they are out on bond for a criminal charge.
Currently, if a person violates conditions of bond for any reason — be it for the commission of a new crime or simply arriving late to a court hearing — he or she faces a mandatory one-year jail term, if their underlying charge is a felony.
A bail bond violation for an underlying misdemeanor offense carries with it a mandatory six-month jail sentence.
Pettersen believes that not all bond violations should carry equal punishment.
“The bill leaves it up to judicial discretion to look at the circumstance, versus having a mandatory sentence,” Pettersen recently told Colorado Community Media. “If it’s somebody who can’t make it to court, versus somebody looking to flee, the judge can take that into account.”
Slaying casts shadow
The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee on a 10-0 bipartisan vote, following a March 26 hearing. It then passed the Appropriations Committee on April 9.
But Republicans now cite parole-related missteps involving the man who allegedly murdered Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements last month, as a key reason behind their change of heart.
Clements was killed in his Monument home on March 19, allegedly by Evan Ebel — who died in a shootout with authorities in Texas days after Clements’ death.
Ebel, who had a long criminal history, was out on parole at the time of the killing. But it turned out that he had removed his ankle monitoring device while on parole, and that DOC did not become aware of the tampering until days after the fact.
Though Pettersen’s bill has nothing to do with DOC monitoring, Republicans see the legislation as akin to having more criminals on the streets, when they don’t have to be.
“I suspect there is an increased focus on these types of issues and these types of bills since we learned of the various failings in the DOC system, with regard to the Clements murder,” said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. “And I do think that, for a lot of members, that did change their perspective.”
Each of the four Republican House members who voted for the bill in committee are now either expressing concerns about the bill, or plan to change their votes: Polly Lawrence of Littleton, Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs, Jared Wright of Fruita and Carole Murray of Castle Rock.
But Pettersen points out that Clements’ death occurred before the March 26 committee hearing, and that her bill has nothing to do with allowing criminals to get a free walk whenever they violate their bail conditions.
“That doesn’t mean that we don’t expect everyone to be in court when they’re supposed to be,” she said. “You can still do the max. It doesn’t take that option away.”
House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Gunbarrel, said she still hopes to get the bill through, in spite of what she thinks are Republican behind-the-scenes games aimed at killing the legislation.
“We’re having some difficulty on the (House) floor, which we’re having a hard time figuring out,” she said of Republican opposition. “Maybe its gotcha, I don’t know. I hope that after all the tomfoolery we’ll be able to pass a good bill.”
But McNulty said Democrats should look at themselves in the mirror to find out why the bill is being stalled.
“For them to say that’s on us, they either don’t recognize that they’re in the majority, or they have other issues on their side that they’re using as an excuse as they try to get out of it,” he said.
The bill had yet to be voted on as of the morning of April 15.