The cost of crime in Colorado


On March 29, Common Sense Institute Criminal Justice Fellows Mitch Morrissey and George Brauchler, along with Louisville Police Chief Dave Hayes, participated in a panel discussion on the economic impact of crime in Colorado during 2021. Colorado Biz magazine publisher Jon Haubert served as moderator.

In a report prepared by the Common Sense Institute, research and modeling produced a statewide cost of crime in 2021 of $31 billion. The largest portion of that total cost, $16.6 billion, resulted from the crime of rape. Assault accounted for $4.5 billion of the total cost of crime in the model, murder, $3.6 billion, and fraud, $2.8 billion. The smallest cost, $1.35 billion, came from motor vehicle theft, even though our state held the dubious distinction of ranking first in the country for motor vehicle theft in 2021 as well as 2020. We reported previously that most cars stolen in Colorado are later found, often after being used in other crimes, which could explain the relatively low cost of such a frequent offense.

Most concerning of all the statistics reported was that murder increased 18% in 2021 across the state, compared to 2020. The updated CSI report on this subject states that, “Both the number (over 400) and rate of homicides in 2021 was the highest on record, dating back to 1985.”

Chief Hayes said that “crime is up even in Louisville.” He said that, if Denver Police Chief Pazen was here, he’d be talking about fentanyl
and how deadly it is.” Hayes continued, “Chief Pazen, on a call last week, described how rival gangs are trying to figure out who’s going to control the fentanyl sales at Union Station, where the price has gone down from $5 a tablet to $3 a tablet.” He talked about how deadly fentanyl is and “how police are trying to figure out how to get a handle on that.” Hayes also said that it is difficult to hire and retain police officers because people just don’t want the job due to the exposure, the level of crime, and the risks associated with being accused of acting inappropriately. 

Morrisey said, “Colorado is off the charts when it comes to auto theft.” After suspecting that it started with the COVID pandemic, Morrisey said that he found out from Chief Pazen that the auto theft rate started to go up in 2014 “when they made it a lower-level penalty.” He added that, “If they steal your catalytic converter, the insurance company will total out your car,” and everyone who buys insurance pays for that in higher rates. 

In Colorado, motor vehicle theft is almost always a felony, however it can be a Class Five felony or even a Class Six felony if the vehicle is worth less than $20,000. For the theft to qualify as a misdemeanor, the vehicle must be worth less than $1,000 and meet other criteria, including that the thief does not retain possession of the vehicle for more than one day or use it in another crime.

Brauchler said that cars are stolen “to perpetuate other crimes.” He talked about the pending legislation designed to address the fentanyl problem, noting it required the person using the drug to go to drug rehabilitation. Still, he said, “It leaves fentanyl possession of up to four grams as a misdemeanor. That’s enough to kill 2000 people.” Moreover, he pointed out that those charged with misdemeanors don’t go to jail, they just get a ticket. The result is that the “mandated rehabilitation” won’t happen until much later, when the perpetrator goes to court. He also pointed out that, “The best thing you can do for an addict is to take them out of their environment,” which also doesn’t happen when they are only given a ticket. Hayes said that law enforcement has made its objection to the legislation as drafted known to members of the General Assembly. 

Morrisey added that there were about 90 cases involving fentanyl filed with the Denver DA’s office in 2019 when the penalty was reduced to a misdemeanor. In 2021, it had tripled. He added that about 70% of those charged with fentanyl possession in Denver are released on personal recognizance (PR) bonds and about half of those with PR bonds don’t show up for court. Looking at a potential solution for the problem, Morrisey said that he started a drug court in Denver when he was the DA because, “When you get an addict clean and sober, they don’t commit crimes like auto theft and burglary.” 

HB19-1263 Offense Level for Controlled Substance Possession that reduced possession of four grams or less of fentanyl and other drugs was passed by the General Assembly unanimously. It had both Democratic and Republican prime sponsors in both the state House and state Senate and did not get even one no vote from any legislator in either chamber from either party on final reading. 

Brauchler added, “The problem is that there are professional criminals who are repeat and violent offenders who are currently on the streets.” While he supports criminal justice reform, he believes that some people should be locked up. In 2013, he said that the legislature reduced sentences “in a way that helped drug dealers.” They have also changed the law, allowing convicted drug deals to own guns, Brauchler reported, but “all those things didn’t happen in one session.” He said that there are legislators who are skeptical about law enforcement and the criminal justice system and it causes them to “take away the discretion from prosecutors and law enforcement, “putting them on their heals instead of on their toes,” by giving the benefit of the doubt to the perpetrators.” He also pointed out that sentences in Colorado are seldom fully served. For example, he noted that if someone is sentenced to eight years, they will be parole-eligible after two and one-half years. 

Centennial Institute’s Antonette Smith asked Morrissey if he was concerned about vigilantism, as in, she said, “What happens if somebody comes into my house and I blow their head off?” Morrissey responded that, “As long as you’re in your house, if someone is in your home threatening you, kill the person.”