From Bond Hearings, Court Fees To Ketamine — Colorado Has A Lot Of New Criminal Justice Laws

r m
David Zalubowski/AP
Caution tape blocks off the intersection of 22nd and Champa as Denver Police Department officers help conduct a homeless sweep Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, north of downtown Denver.

Within the next few months, every judicial jurisdiction in Colorado will have to ensure bond hearings within 48 hours of arrest, even on weekends.

The state will also stop suspending people’s drivers licenses over unpaid traffic fines.

And the number of juvenile detention beds will decrease by about a third.

Those changes and others are the result of nearly a dozen criminal justice bills Gov. Jared Polis signed into law Tuesday. The package included some top Democratic priorities, as well as some changes that had more bipartisan support.

“We need to create a more effective system that supports and rehabilitates our youth rather than simply punishes them,” said state Sen. Janet Buckner, a Democrat from Aurora, in a statement about her bill to reduce the number of juveniles held in state facilities. “With this law, we are reducing the long-term and harmful costs associated with youth incarceration while providing an avenue for kids to re-enter their communities safely."

Buckner’s bill also eliminates cash bail for juveniles accused of committing a crime of delinquency. 

New rules for ketamine, policing

In the area of policing, Polis signed HB21-1251, which clarifies that law enforcement can not instruct an EMT to administer the powerful sedative ketamine to someone who is being arrested or is in custody.

Ketamine has been the subject of debate and investigation in the state since the death of Elijah McClain in 2019. He was declared dead several days after EMTs misjudged his weight and injected him with twice the amount of ketamine recommended for a person his size. An autopsy ruled the cause of death inconclusive and said it may have been related to excited delirium.

In a signing statement accompanying the bill, the governor noted that, “A recent American Medical Association Statement indicated that ‘excited delirium’ is a subjective diagnosis and should not be used until better diagnostic criteria exist. That is why CDPHE will place a hold on all ketamine waivers at this time in the setting of excited delirium” as it works to implement the new law and the forthcoming findings of an investigation into EMT administration of ketamine that was launched last year. 

The governor also signed HB21-1250, which revises and expands some of the provisions in 2020’s sweeping police accountability law

The new law adds State Patrol officers to the list of law enforcement professionals who can face individual lawsuits if they act in bad faith. It also requires multi-agency reviews for all officer-involved deaths and moves the deadline for all agencies to implement body-worn cameras up to next year. 

Law enforcement groups and many Republican lawmakers opposed the bill, arguing that it changes more rules for police without giving them enough time to implement last year’s policies.

Rep. Leslie Herod, sponsor of both bills, celebrated their signing Tuesday. 

“I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done to make our law enforcement and criminal legal systems more just,” the Denver Democrat said in a statement.

Laws aimed at reducing the lingering impacts of arrests

Several other laws signed by Polis aim to reduce the financial costs of being arrested:

  • HB21-1314 will end the practice of suspending someone’s driver’s license over unpaid tickets or other outstanding traffic violations. 
  • HB21-1315 completely eliminates court fees for juveniles, and wipes out tens of millions worth of fees owed for past cases.

Other measures are focused on easing the path back into society after an arrest or conviction:

  • HB21-1214 makes it easier for people to seal their criminal records and will lead to the state automatically sealing some records of past low-level drug convictions for people who have not reoffended. 
  • SB21-146 requires the Department of Corrections to develop recommended parole plans for all inmates. It also reforms the Special Needs Parole program to make it easier for prisoners with significant, chronic health concerns to petition for early release. Some incarcerated people and their loved ones argue the department has been underutilizing the program, especially during the pandemic.
  • SB21-138 requires DOC to create a pilot program to screen people coming into the prison system for brain injuries and offer them increased support during their incarceration. The goal is to reduce recidivism once they’re released.

Changes to how arrested people are processed

Weekend bond hearings will soon spread statewide, thanks to HB21-1280, a Democratic bill that requires everyone arrested see a judge, whether in person or remotely, within 48 hours of being taken into arrest. Many prosecutors fought the measure as an unfunded mandate, which they said would force them to assign staff to work weekends with no additional compensation. 

A lower-profile, but sweeping, effort signed by the governor is a rewrite of the criminal code for misdemeanor offenses, which is aimed at bringing more simplicity and predictability to how prosecutors handle the lowest level crimes. The bipartisan bill was the result of months of collaboration between prosecutors, public defenders and criminal justice reformers.

New laws protecting minors

Polis also signed two bills that get tougher on certain crimes around child sexual abuse. SB21-088 makes it easier for someone to sue a youth-related group or program where they experienced sexual misconduct, and HB21-1069 updates the laws around sexual exploitation of a child and potentially could result in longer sentences.

Editor's Note: The original version of this story had the wrong first name for state Sen. Janet Buckner. It has been corrected.