Auto thefts in Colorado have increased 88% since 2017, according to a report released by the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority. (Courtesy of the Colorado Auto Theft)

Prevention Authority

Is the legislature finally ready to do an about-face and get tough on auto theft? It has skyrocketed in Colorado the past couple of years — giving our state the highest rate in the U.S. — in the wake of misguided “justice reforms” that watered down penalties in 2021. Just about everybody knows somebody whose car has been stolen, and the public is fed up.

Some state lawmakers from both parties are now poised to act, answering Gov. Jared Polis’ call for a crackdown in his State of the State speech earlier this month.

On Monday, state Sens. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, and Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, introduced a Senate bill to restore sanity to prosecution of auto thieves and put more of them in jail. Joining them for the bill’s debut were state Reps. Shannon Bird, a Westminster Democrat, and Matt Soper, a Republican from Delta, who will carry the bill in the state House.

Current law bases the severity of penalties on the value of a vehicle. That might make some sense in prosecuting, say, a bank heist but not when it comes to stealing cars. Whether you drive a new Tesla or an old rattle trap, it likely has four wheels and gets you to work and your kids to school. If you drive the rattle trap, and it is stolen, chances are you can’t afford a replacement. The Tesla owner is probably in a higher tax bracket and has other worries.

Meaning, the lower the value of a car or truck that is stolen, the harder the blow to the victim.

Making matters worse, the 2021 law driven by justice-reform dogma actually went so far as to make the theft of a vehicle valued under $2,000 a mere misdemeanor.

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Senate Bill 23-097 aims to fix that. It eliminates the state criminal code’s sliding scale tying the value of a vehicle to the penalty. The vast majority of vehicles stolen in Colorado are valued at the lower end of the scale, says a 2022 report from Colorado’s Common Sense Institute.

“Colorado will (under the bill) treat every auto theft equally,” Zenzinger said in a statement issued by the Senate Democrats. “A stolen car represents much more than stolen property — it impacts people’s ability to get to work, shop for groceries, and live their daily lives.”

The bill also, rightly, imposes tougher penalties on repeat offenders.

Praise is in order for all four of the bill’s prime sponsors and particularly for Zenzinger and Bird, who to some extent are bucking their own party on this issue. They essentially are calling back one of the more reckless provisions of their fellow ruling Democrats’ justice reform agenda — and considering instead what’s best for the general public. That is the kind of responsive lawmaking our state urgently needs in the crime fight.

Polis himself appears to have had something of an epiphany on the subject. He had signed into law the 2021 bill downgrading a range of criminal penalties, including for auto theft. But in his State of the State speech, he endorsed efforts to "get tough on auto theft sentencing,” and he told the joint session of the legislature gathered before him, "I look forward to seeing the General Assembly take up this important recommendation.”

Now, the question is whether enough Democrats will vote with minority Republicans to move the measure forward in both chambers of the legislature, all the way to Polis’ desk. We’ll be watching the bill closely.