The effort to make the felony murder charge more fair, particularly toward people of color, is now the law of Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis on Monday signed Senate Bill 124, which grants judges discretion in the sentence on a felony murder charge.
The felony murder charge applies when a person is involved in a related crime but doesn't actually commit the murder. Under current law, that earned the defendant a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Under SB 124, a judge can now decide on a sentence of between 16 and 48 years, depending on the severity of the related crime, which can include felony arson, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, sexual assault, including sexual assault on a child, and felony escape.
Polis noted during the signing ceremony that he had a clemency case before him where the person who committed the murder served their time and was released; but the person charged under the felony murder charge was still in prison. "I'm signing this bill because it makes the punishment fit the crime ... this bill will help return that balance."
Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, has been working on the felony murder issue for several years. He told Colorado Politics on Monday that the toughest challenge in getting the bill to the governor's desk was objections from the Colorado District Attorneys Council.
"What was most helpful was an election in which additional district attorneys were elected who were supportive of a change in this draconian law," Lee said. The DA Council was neutral on the bill, but a half dozen DAs testified in favor of it.
Lee said the bill is "a sea change in recognizing that you can't do criminal justice with a broadsword. There has to be nuance to it."
There's also a racial justice aspect, according to Lee and Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, the bill's House sponsor. Weissman said during the ceremony that there are profound racial disparities taking place when the offense of felony murder is charged. This will start to get racial disparity out of the criminal justice system, he said.
Lee added that last year's Senate Bill 217, the law enforcement accountability law, was the building block upon which other criminal justice reforms will be built. The protests around the country over the death of George Floyd of Minneapolis (and others) "ignited a spark in people that recognized the system operates differently depending on where you live and the color of your skin," he said, adding that SB 124 is a huge step forward in changing the system.
Also on hand for the signing ceremony was former state Sen. Daniel Kagan of Greenwood Village, who has remained active in pushing for a change in the felony murder law, an issue he worked on in 2017. "It's tremendously satisfying to come here and see that it's actually happening," he told Colorado Politics.
Tristan Gorman of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar added that one difficulty was getting laypeople to understand what felony murder is.
"When we started working on this bill, the reaction was 'why would we knock down felony murder? Isn't that murder but worse?' " Because it's such an antiquated concept that comes over from Old English common law, most Coloradans don't know what it means, she explained.
The change to the felony murder statute goes into effect Sept. 15, 2021.
Polis also signed four other bills, included one aimed at lowering prescription drug prices.
Senate Bill 21-123 from Sens. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, and Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Reps. Karen McCormick, D-Longmont, and Mike Lynch, R-Wellington, seeks to build on a program signed into law in 2019 that would allow Coloradans to import prescription drugs from Canada. The state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing estimates that would give consumers access to medications that would be on average 61% cheaper than in the United States. But that program has yet to be fully implemented in the state with a holdup based largely at the federal level.
Congress in 2003 approved a proposal allowing certain drugs to be imported from Canada if the secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services deemed it could be done safely. Heads of that agency under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama opted against taking that measure.
But former Secretary Alex Azar, who ran HHS under President Donald Trump, approved a rule on the program in September. It’s unclear whether the new administration will move forward with that plan, but President Joe Biden expressed support for the concept on the campaign trail, and Xavier Becerra, Biden’s HHS secretary, voted for the Canadian drug importation proposal as a member of Congress in 2003.
The bill Polis signed would expand the importation market beyond Canada and put Colorado front of the line to reach foreign drug markets should federal law ever allow it.
"It's just outrageous that in this day and age Americans, including Coloradans, are paying five times as much, eight times as much, 10 times as much for the exact same pill made in the exact same factory as people in other countries, and that is one of the reasons that American healthcare costs are so high," Polis said ahead of signing the bill, which he touted as one that "increases Colorado's negotiating leverage and being able to get the best deal for Coloradans."
The remaining bills Polis signed include:
- Senate Bill 21-040, which put limits on the conditions under which a state regulatory agency can use a driver's history in making decisions on occupational licenses, permits or certifications.
- Senate Bill 21-107, a measure that honors disability rights advocate Carrie Ann Lucas. The bill renames the section of state statutes ensuring parents with disabilities have due process and equal rights under the law in matters of child welfare, foster care, family law, guardianship and adoption as the Carrie Ann Lucas Parental Rights for People with Disabilities Act.
- Senate Bill 21-075, which allows adults with disabilities to voluntarily enter into a supported decision-making agreement, a scaled-down, less restrictive version of a guardianship.