What would you do if you were a law enforcement official holding 10 convicted criminals and you only had space to keep five of them?
You may have heard that our state has a problem with overcrowded prisons – a problem that taxpayers are asked to shoulder at great cost. But even if you know about it, you probably aren’t aware of how severe it is. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, 12 of Colorado’s 21 prison facilities were above capacity as of 2011, and another four were at 99% of total capacity. That means that 75% of the prisons in our state can’t take in any more people.
The issue has gotten so serious that this past May six convicted felons were released in Aurora because there was just nowhere to put them. It was a move that nobody wanted to make, but officials had their hands tied. Now those people are again the problem of their communities.
How can Colorado ease this burden? By eliminating prison sentences for less serious offenses – especially non-violent drug crimes. The state took a huge step forward in this regard when we legalized recreational marijuana, but now there’s another way to keep drug offenders from taking up precious space in our penitentiaries: the Wobbler Statute.
Punishment Doesn’t Have to Mean Prison Time
Somewhere around half of the prison population is there due to a conviction of a non-violent drug crime. While some of these people are serving time for truly serious crimes, others simply had too much of a certain drug in their possession or were caught selling or otherwise distributing a small amount of a low level controlled substance. Obviously, these people should be punished for their crimes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean prison time has to be served.
That’s where the Wobbler comes in. It can allow people convicted of the kinds of drug crimes described above, which would typically be classified as felonies and require prison time, to have those charges reduced to misdemeanors. The idea is that certain types of crimes involving drugs are on the borderline between being truly serious and minor offenses – they’re “wobblers.” In some cases, they don’t really need to be charged as felonies.
What do you have to do for your charge to become a wobbler? Well, first of all, it only applies to certain kinds of charges, as mentioned above. There are, however, more specific guidelines, so it’s important that you know what they are. Beyond that, you can’t have any prior convictions related to drugs, and you must complete your probation. Do that and your offense can be reclassified as a wobbler.
How Important Is the Wobbler?
In a word? Very.
First off, the Wobbler Statute has the potential to markedly slash the prison population in our state by keeping out those people who arguably don’t need to be there in the first place. This can be the difference between letting violent criminals serve their time and being forced to choose who gets released early because there’s just no room.
Second, there’s a huge difference between being convicted of a misdemeanor and a felony. While people found guilty of misdemeanors can often return to the world and live relatively normal lives, a felony conviction comes with more restrictions. You won’t be allowed to do certain jobs, own firearms, or serve on a jury, for starters.
Far too many Colorado attorneys don’t know enough about this statute because it is so new. Because of this, it may be up to you to bring it up with your lawyer. Or you can find an attorney who has handled these kinds of cases before and get in touch as soon as possible.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.