Committee Appointment Threatens to Derail Criminal Justice Reforms in Colorado

The new make-up of the Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee could doom longtime progressive priorities like preventing police from lying to children.

Alex Burness   |    January 5, 2023

Senator-elect Dylan Roberts was appointed to the Senate Judiciary Committee, a small but powerful body that reviews legislation that touches on the criminal legal system (Photo from Senator-elect Dylan Roberts/Facebook)

Following a 2022 election that grew Democrats’ large majorities in the Colorado legislature, proponents of criminal justice reform saw fresh opportunity to push for longtime priorities, like preventing police from lying to children during interrogations and shielding preteens from criminal prosecution. But they are now watching with frustration as the addition of a former prosecutor to a critical legislative committee threatens to derail their ambitions before the 2023 session even starts.

The Democratic leadership appointed Dylan Roberts, an incoming state senator who built a voting record that was often hostile to reform legislation while a state representative, to the Senate Judiciary Committee, a powerful body that reviews and can kill bills that touch on the criminal legal system.

The committee will have three Democrats and two Republicans this session, putting Roberts in the likely position of a deciding swing vote on legislation that would reshape law enforcement, prosecution and incarceration. The panel, little-watched by the public and typically known for its long, esoteric legal debates, could become the graveyard of Democrats’ reform agenda.

Roberts told Bolts that he will approach criminal justice issues much like he did in the House. Last year, he was the only Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee to vote against Senate Bill 23 to stop police from lying to children during interrogations in order to obtain information or secure guilty pleas, and House Bill 1131, which would have raised the minimum age for children to face criminal prosecution from 10 to 13. The former bill passed the Senate but fizzled dramatically on the House floor at the end of the session; the latter was gutted, replaced with a task force meant to explore the change.

The proposals were part of a years-long effort by advocates and some Democratic lawmakers to make Colorado law less punishing of young people, and the legislators who championed those bills say they’ll try again in 2023. But Roberts told Bolts that he stands by his votes. Barring substantial amendments, he said, he would not vote for either if and when they are reintroduced, which would be enough to doom them in committee in their intended forms. 

Colorado’s session opens Jan. 9 and runs until May. After gaining seven seats in November, Democrats now enjoy majorities of 23 to 12 in the Senate and 46 to 19 in the House, and so they will have many votes to spare when bills make it to the chamber floors. But they would have much less room for error in the Senate Judiciary Committee, as currently designed. Roberts’s opposition, for instance, would block the version of SB 23 that passed the Senate last year. (The other two Democrats on the committee are generally reliable progressives, while the two Republicans have seldom been open to progressive legislation.)

House Assistant Majority Leader Jennifer Bacon, who sponsored SB 23 and HB 1131 last session, told Bolts that she is frustrated by the Judiciary Committee’s upcoming make-up. She said she and like-minded lawmakers supported Roberts in his election to ensure Democrats held the Senate, but that feel should not have an effective veto over criminal justice legislation.

“I do think the Democrats need to have a conversation about what it means to be a Democrat, what it means that all these progressive people were just elected, and we still put all this power in the hands of a single white man,” said Bacon, a Black lawmaker from Denver.

Roberts was also the only Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee to oppose a bill meant to raise arrest standards and lower jail populations, and the only one to not support indefinitely postponing a Republican bill to limit clemency applications, HB 1164, though he voted against passage. Last year, he was among a crowd of Democrats behind a successful push for the legislature to make simple possession of small amounts of fentanyl a felony.

Some at the Colorado Capitol say they do not believe that Roberts is inclined to behave as a one-man kill committee of progressive aspirations, but that they are unsure what to expect from him. He is clearly more conservative than most Democrats on criminal-legal issues but he has also voted for plenty of reform legislation in the past, they note. Roberts stood with his party in supporting a 2019 bill lowering criminal penalties for simple drug possession and a 2020 bill repealing the death penalty

Roberts told Bolts that his foremost mission is to represent the interests of Senate District 8, which covers mountain and rural communities in northwest Colorado. The district leans blue, though slightly less so than the state at large; it has a higher percentage of white residents than the state as a whole and a much lower incarceration rate than more urban, diverse parts of Colorado.

“I knocked on thousands of doors,” Roberts told Bolts, “and criminal justice reform did not come up, but public safety did. That’s something I’ll bring to mind when I approach these bills down in Denver.” He added, “We all represent our districts first, not our caucus first.”

Roberts told Bolts that, as of Jan. 2, zero Democratic lawmakers had approached him to discuss coming legislation on criminal-legal issues. “I think it’s pretty clear, when you have a three-to-two committee, that one vote either way is going to be the deciding vote,” he said. “I understand and recognize that’ll be a consequential place to be in, but I hope my colleagues use it as an opportunity to engage me and the communities I represent on those policies.”

Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Democrat who represents Denver’s north and west suburbs, told Bolts that Roberts, the only attorney in the Senate Democratic caucus, was a natural choice for the Judiciary Committee—but that he did not mean to build the committee such that the fate of legislation hinges on the vote of a single Democrat.

He said that Judiciary could have been expanded to a nine-member committee with six Democrats, which would have created breathing room around Roberts, but that “we couldn’t find another member of the caucus that was willing to serve in that capacity.” 

The legislature’s Judiciary Committees are known for taking on intense topics and deliberating at great length, which, Moreno said, makes them unappealing to many members who may already be quite busy. He added that he approached Senator James Coleman and Senator-elect Tony Exum about joining Judiciary, “but it didn’t really go anywhere.”

Moreno insisted that Senate leadership does not want the chamber’s Judiciary Committee to be a roadblock to progressive policy. “No one member by themselves will stand in the way of making meaningful criminal justice reform,” he said. 

Still, Moreno did not specify what the leadership may do for the committee to not sink progressive legislation. Committee assignments can change mid-session, either permanently or on short-term bases, but Moreno gave no indication of a Senate Judiciary personnel shakeup; he also stressed that expanding the size of a committee would be difficult at this stage. He did not say whether leadership may route certain bills that fit in the scope of Judiciary to other committees more likely to pass them.

Republican State Senator Bob Gardner, the ranking member of Senate Judiciary, told Bolts that committee placements aren’t made by mistake.

“I think the subtext of this one is that we will see criminal justice legislation come out of the committee that is moved more to the center, if it does come out of committee,” he said. “Or, we will see things that do not come out of the committee because they’re a bridge too far. That’s my hope.”

Progressive lawmakers say they won’t amend their 2023 agendas, even as they are keenly aware of the committee’s new power dynamics. 

Julie Gonzales, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and frequently sponsors anti-carceral legislation, said the Roberts assignment “changes nothing of the bills I’m planning to be a lead sponsor on.” Those include reruns of last year’s proposals to prevent cops from lying to kids in interrogations and to raise the minimum age of prosecution; currently, eight states have set that age above Colorado’s line of age 10.

Gonzales, a Democrat who represents parts of Denver and is the Senate majority whip, told Bolts, “Senator-elect Roberts’s record speaks for itself. I look forward to working with him.”

Roberts said he stands by his votes against those two bills. “I was hearing serious objection from my community,” including law enforcement and some advocates for crime victims, he said. Police groups and state prosecutors fought the changes last year because they said it would be harder for them to gather information to solve crimes or to use prosecution to steer children to treatments

Tristan Gorman, a lobbyist for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, said stopping police from lying to children remains a high priority for reform advocates. 

“It’s still just as important as it was last year to protect kids, who are way more vulnerable to deception than adults, from making false confessions, and, in turn, reduce wrongful convictions,” she told Bolts

The Senate Judiciary Committee is but one example of Democrats shying from leftward policy, despite deepened majorities that leave the party in control of 69 of 100 seats in the legislature. Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee and its House speakership, among other spots of major influence, are both controlled by Democrats notably more moderate than the Democratic caucuses overall. Democrat Jared Polis, a regular impediment to progressive legislation in Colorado on issues ranging from tax policy to immigrant protections, remains governor.

Progressives like Bacon find this all clarifying. 

“Last session, we over-relied on this excuse of the election, to temper ourselves,” Bacon said, referring to some Democrats’ worry that championing ambitious criminal justice reforms in an election year could backfire at the polls. “This year, that won’t be an excuse anymore, but already we have set ourselves up to extend the beliefs of last session, and that tells me where people are really at. We’ve set up actual infrastructure to keep us from these issues.”

The article has been corrected to note that Roberts voted against passage of HB 1164, the GOP-proposed clemency bill, while joining the GOP to oppose indefinitely postponing it.