Two Democratic state lawmakers were the downfall of a bill that sought to implement significant pre-trial justice reforms and reduce jail populations.
Democrats initially appeared as a united front on Senate Bill 273, which would have limited law enforcement from making arrests for low-level crimes, such as traffic violations and petty drug offenses, and instead require them to issue a summons. The aim was to tackle unjust jailing practices that lead to the mistreatment of communities of color and other vulnerable populations.
The bill also would have limited the use of cash bail for low-level offenses, something advocates say punishes people for being poor and in effect criminalizes poverty by forcing people to sit in jail cells when they haven’t been convicted of a crime simply because they can’t afford to pay.
Despite opposition from Republicans, bail bondsmen, and law enforcement, the legislation passed out of the Colorado Senate on party lines.
But Monday, just prior to the end of the 2021 legislative session, the bill died in the House Finance Committee after two Democrats – state Reps. Matt Gray of Broomfield and Shannon Bird of Westminster – voted no.
Neither Gray, who’s a former prosecutor, nor Bird responded to requests for comment from the Colorado Times Recorder seeking to know what led to their no votes and if they have a response to criticism from those who say they’ve turned their backs on Black and Brown community members and failed to fix an unjust system.
According to the Colorado Sun, Bird wanted the bill’s sponsors to make amendments limiting the new measure to misdemeanors, rather than felony offenses and giving law enforcement more discretion in the field.
“We are not in a position to legislate for every possible situation,” Bird said.
But neither Bird nor Gray has provided clear reasoning for their vote or spoken about the issue publicly since Monday’s hearing despite widespread criticism from racial justice advocates and calls for an explanation.
Elisabeth Epps, who runs the Colorado Freedom Fund, which pays bail for those who can’t afford to, is an outspoken critic of the use of cash bail.
“The neighbors we pay bond for are not more risky,” she said during the hearing Monday. “They are not more dangerous. They are not more criminal. They are more poor.”
Following the vote, Epps questioned Democratic lawmakers’ calls for solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, according to The Denver Post’s Alex Burness.
“Because what does it mean?” she told Burness. “One wonders what the point is of Democrats if they’re going to vote with Republicans.”
Rebecca Wallace, senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Colorado, a leading advocate for the legislation, criticized Gray and Bird on Twitter and said they “told us unless their police chief was satisfied, they wouldn’t support the bill.”
The outcome of Monday’s hearing came as a shock to the bill’s sponsors.
“I am shocked, disappointed, and saddened by the defeat of SB21-273,” said Sen. Pete Lee (D-Colorado Springs) in a statement. “I grieve for the community that has time and again been impacted by police violence.”
The bill’s backers pointed out that low-level arrests disproportionately impact people of color and can escalate into violence, like in the cases of Marvin Booker and Michael Marshall, two Black men who were arrested in Denver on low-level charges and died in custody.
Racial justice advocates including the Bring Our Neighbors Home Coalition and local Indivisible groups highlighted Gray’s endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police, and continue to ask Gray and Bird to explain their votes.
This story will be updated with any response from Gray or Bird.