A Local Response to the White House: Denver Passes Jail Sentencing Reform & Aims to Help Immigrants, Families and Our Communities

Just this week, on May 22nd Denver City Council approved a comprehensive bill that reforms sentencing ranges for low level infractions and in doing so will protect immigrants from deportation. As many people sentenced to jail-time are parents, such changes will largely affect children of incarcerated parents by mitigating the negative emotional and behavioral outcomes caused by separation. The changes can also help avoid unnecessary separation and termination of parental rights for those involved in the child welfare system or in family law custody cases. In 2009 alone, more than 14,000 children entered foster care due at least partly due to the incarceration of a parent

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office proposed the ordinance and stated:

“Over the past four months, the White House has issued a series of executive orders that have exacerbated our broken immigration system and have had a real impact on our community... I have heard from many who are rightfully concerned. Denver is committed to taking actions that will protect our people’s rights and keep our city safe, welcoming and open.”

The bill explained in more detail here, will keep certain offenses under 365 days at 364, so that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will not be notified. Under the ordinance, low-level infractions, like urinating in public, would see a reduced sentencing range of no more than 60 days and no fines. Mid-level offenses, like trespassing and low-level assault, would have maximum jail stays at 300 days and leave fine levels as they are now. Top-level offenses would remain unchanged.

One thing to think about when it comes to ordinances such is this are the impacts it will have on families. Most jails nationwide do not have visitation rooms, and kids must visit behind glass with no opportunities for physical touch. From speaking to many non-immigrant parents in prison, I have been told that they often would prefer to go to prison (even if it is longer) so that they can maintain contact with their children through visitation, Girl Scouts and Boys Scouts Beyond Bars, and other family friendly programming that does not currently exist in jails. Given this reality, we must require that jail facilities are up to par for families. Currently, in Seattle, advocates are asking the King County Council to implement face to face contact visits at the jail and follow programs such as the “One Family” program run by Community Works in San Francisco County.

The ordinance also works with the city’s new system that allows people to resolve traffic tickets by mail. People will no longer need to go to court to resolve most of their traffic tickets. This prevents individuals who are immigrants from having contact with the system and thereby reducing their chances of coming in contact with ICE.

Additionally, the bill adds a hate crime element in an attempt to send a message in response to a rise in hate crimes seen in the Denver area since the new administration. Specifically, hate crimes against transgender, immigrants, Muslim and Jewish communities are on the rise. The addition of the hate crime element was due largely in response to U.S. Commission on Civil Rights letter from March 20, 2017 condemning hate incidents on the rise and reported across the country.

However, many groups and activists on the ground do not believe that hate crimes legislation will make us safer, and instead point out that it builds up the prison system (that we are currently working to end reliance on) and aids in mass incarceration (which disproportionately affects people of color and transgender people of color). For example, leader Silvia Rivera Project which works to increase the political voice and visibility of low-income people and people of color who are transgender, intersex, or gender non conforming states clearly on their website that SLRP:

“[O]pposes the use of hate crimes legislation as a way to protect queer and trans people, as well as people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, and all marginalized people. We believe hate crimes legislation build up systems that cannot protect us and deflect resources from systems that sustain and support our communities, such as education and health care...”

This is not a new argument, as activists have been highlighting that this strategy for ending violence for marginalized communities is counter-intuitive for many years. When it comes to protecting our queer and trans community, it is important to recognize that largely due to unfair policing and targeting of survival work, at least 30% of the transgender community has been incarcerated. When it comes to youth, 60% of gay and transgender youth in prison are black or latinx. The criminal justice system is not seen as a source of protection for many. In this Feministing article dating back seven-years author Jos Truitt states:

“But the ultimate goal should be to end such violence. Harsher sentencing does not decrease the amount of hate crimes being committed. A focus on sentence enhancement for these crimes does nothing for prevention. Putting our energy toward promoting harsher sentencing takes it away from the more difficult and more important work of changing our culture so that no one wants to kill another person because of their perceived membership in a marginalized identity group.”

As cities get creative, hopefully they’ll see that in response to hate crimes, many of our communities need "justice" that centers healing not incarceration. Hopefully efforts can integrate community based forms of restorative justice that help communities heal and empower those who are targeted by violence and work to end the bigotry that leads to such crimes in the first place. Lessons can be taken from existing restorative justice programs such as those by Impact Justice in the Bay Area working with young people charged with sex offenses and by Common Justice in Brooklyn NY working with adults charged with violent crimes. These organizations are working on practical strategies to not only hold people accountable for harm but to break cycles of violence, secure safety, healing and justice for survivors and their communities. As Truitt states, “Violence targeted at members of oppressed communities must be recognized and addressed, but harsher prison sentences are not the way.”

Lillian M. Hewko, J.D.


Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><span>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Each email address will be obfuscated in a human readable fashion or (if JavaScript is enabled) replaced with a spamproof clickable link.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

More information about formatting options

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
6 + 2 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.

Monthly Feature

Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People's Movement Western Regional Conference

Convened by All of Us or None & Legal Services for Prisoners with Children

Sunday, September 20th & Monday, September 21st

Formerly incarcerated and convicted people, family members, community and spiritual leaders, elected officials and government employees will all come together to strengthen our relationships and work towards making change through community empowerment. We invite you to Voice your opinion, learn your rights and learn what changes we can make together. All of Us or None Contact: (415)-255-7036 ext. 337 www.prisonerswithchildren.org

FREE REGISTRATION: eventbrite.com