Ruling in 2019 prohibits sentencing defendants to prison followed by probation in same criminal case
The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday exempted people with a sex offense conviction from a key 2019 decision that prohibited defendants from being sentenced to prison followed by probation in the same criminal case.
People with a sex offense conviction in Colorado can face such punishment in some circumstances, the justices found in a pair of opinions that examined how the state’s sentencing laws for sex offenses drastically differ from sentencing for other crimes.
The 2019 ruling surprised many in Colorado’s legal system who had operated for years under the belief that it was fine to sentence defendants to prison followed by probation. The court’s decision that the practice was unlawful opened the door for hundreds of defendants to get out of prison or renegotiate their plea deals.
That type of sentencing was perhaps most often seen in cases involving sex offenses, and Monday’s pair of 5-2 decisions uphold the practice for defendants who are convicted of both a sex offense and another crime.
“Critically, while the general sentencing statutes reflect the legislature’s disapproval of consecutive prison-probation sentences, (the Sex Offense Lifetime Supervision Act), by contrast, reflects the approval of such sentencing,” Justice Carlos Samour wrote for the court. Chief Justice Brian Boatright and Justice Melissa Hart dissented.
“The fact that a particular sentencing arrangement proves useful does not make that arrangement legal,” Boatright wrote. “That summarizes my position.”
The cases were brought to the state supreme court by Denver District Attorney Beth McCann’s office, after one man’s sexual assault conviction was vacated because of the 2019 ruling and another man’s sentence was declared illegal. In a statement Wednesday, Chief Deputy District Attorney Robert Russel applauded the justices’ decision.
“These cases presented difficult issues of statutory interpretation, and the resulting opinions — both the majority and dissent –- are thorough and well-crafted,” he said.
The Colorado District Attorney’s Council also supported the ruling, saying in a statement that “decisions correctly identified the legislative intent to promote these dual prison/probation sentences, for people convicted of a sex offense specifically, in order to prevent future victimization and protect the health and safety of every community in our state.”
The decision gives some flexibility back to trial judges, who had gravitated to the prison-then-probation sentences in sex offenses in part because the sex-offense sentencing laws are designed for defendants who “clearly present a threat to public safety because of a psychological dysfunction in sexual behavior that needs to be treated,” said Stan Garnett, former Boulder County district attorney.
“The problem that the trial courts grapple with, and I saw this all the time when I watched them impose sentences, is that a lot of the people who present, don’t necessarily fit the stereotype of a dangerous person,” he said. “…This issue of whether probation can be imposed or not is rooted in trial judges trying to come up with a consequence they think is fair and works and is still consistent with the statute.”
Susan Walker, director of the Coalition for Sexual Offense Restoration, a nonprofit that offers support to people convicted of sexual offenses, said the court’s ruling is “a very bad thing.”
“It’s not good for any of the guys who have a sex offense,” she said. “Even those who had sentences reversed with the previous call will lose that step forward at this time. … It’s certainly not going to help people in that situation and it may send some people back (to prison) who thought they were done.”