EDITORIAL: Senate Bill 14, addressing hidden Colorado prisoners is just a start, not a solution

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While Senate Bill 14 would bring an improvement over Colorado’s bizarre and dangerous hide-and-seek game state prison officials played last year with mass-murder James Holmes, the proposed changes aren’t nearly good enough.

The bill passed the State Senate last week on a bi-partisan vote and seeks to require that the Colorado Depart of Corrections inform crime victims when convicts are moved from their prison homes.

In 2016, the public learned that Holmes, one of the state’s most notorious murderers, had been smuggled out of the state prison where he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life. He was sent to a secret location because prison officials believed that Holmes was unsafe in Colorado and at risk of being injured by other prisoners.

That led to news reports that as many as 100 other convicts, including murderers and rapists, have also been traded off to other states, keeping secret their transfer and location.

When victims of Holmes’ slaughter, and families of victims, demanded to know what the state had done with Holmes, they were told his location was a need-to-know basis, and they didn’t need to know.

This new bill is co-sponsored by Aurora state Sen. Rhonda Fields, herself the mother of a murder victim whose killer is inside a Colorado prison. Field’s bill addresses the genuine need for victims to know the location of convicts, but the measure comes up empty on several other critical areas.

First and foremost, as we pointed out before, hiding convicts signals that Colorado prisons are so unsafe that we must harbor inmates in secret, not just one but dozens, because keeping them in what should be secure conditions puts their lives and the lives of prison employees at risk.

If state prisons are unable to handle what is essentially Job One for so many prisoners, what else are they unable to handle? According to reports from last year, other states don’t have this problem.

Just as important are the clear, legal rights of not just victims of these convicts, but the public, too. Fields’ measure allows for convict location information for direct victims in most instances, but the measure precludes the same logical requirement for the public. There is no legal requirement in the bill forcing victims who learn the location of convicts to keep it secret. Such coyness in state law is unnecessary. Simply make clear that the information is available to the public, not just “assigned” victims.

Just as dangerous is the notion that state officials have empowered themselves to hide not just what must be public information, but human beings as well. The very idea that the government can harbor and hide people, even criminals, in secret is offensive to American standards of human rights and dignity. Allowing Colorado to behave like Russia or China should set off alarm bells for all of Colorado.

If the cost of justice and prisoner safety is so high that state officials can’t currently accommodate it, then state lawmakers must provide the resources to not only force Colorado to adhere to the law, but to do the right and decent thing.

It’s critical that the location, condition and care of all state prisoners always be made available to the public. Anything else is too dangerous. Senate Bill 14 is a good start, but it has a long ways to go before it solves the problem of what to do with extraordinary prisoners.