Colorado distinguishes felony offenses from misdemeanors based on the seriousness of the offense. A misdemeanor carries a maximum possible sentence of 364 days in a local jail. Any crime that carries the possibility of a year or more and up to life in prison is a felony. Colorado repealed the death penalty in 2020.
Colorado uses two felony sentencing schemes—one for drug offenses and one for all other felony offenses—both of which have changed several times over the years.
This article will provide an overview of felony sentencing, probation, and parole laws in Colorado. Specifically, the punishments set out below apply to felonies committed on or after July 1, 2018, and drug felonies committed on or after October 1, 2013. For information on time limits for filing felony charges, check out Colorado Criminal Statutes of Limitations.
The law divides felonies into six classes (Classes 1 to 6) and drug felonies into four levels (Levels 1 to 4).
For all felonies, the law provides a presumptive minimum and maximum sentence of incarceration and a mandatory parole term based on the crime's class or level and severity. The presumptive sentence is what the judge should generally order in a typical case.
When ordering a sentence of imprisonment, judges typically order a fixed term that falls within the presumptive sentence for a particular crime. If aggravating or mitigating circumstances exist, a judge can impose a sentence above or below the presumptive range. But in no case can the court order a sentence that is more than twice the maximum presumptive sentence.
Below are the presumptive minimum and maximum sentences and mandatory parole terms by class and severity for general felonies. "Crimes of violence" and "extraordinary risk of harm crimes" are listed in the law (sections 18-1.3-401, 18-1.3-406).
Class 2 felonies carry the following presumptive prison sentences and mandatory parole terms.
Class 3 felonies carry the following presumptive prison sentences and mandatory parole terms.
Class 4 felonies carry the following presumptive prison sentences and mandatory parole terms.
Fines for Class 4 felonies range from $2,000 to $500,000. Examples of Class 4 felonies include criminal extortion, theft of property worth between $20,000 and $100,000, and stalking in violation of a protection order.
Class 5 felonies carry the following presumptive prison sentences and mandatory parole terms.
Class 6 felonies carry the following presumptive prison sentences and one-year mandatory parole terms.
Fines for Class 6 felonies range from $1,000 to $100,000. Examples of Class 6 felonies include invasion of privacy for sexual gratification and impersonating a peace officer.
Drug felonies committed on or after October 1, 2013, carry the following presumptive sentences and mandatory parole terms.
Level 1 drug felony: Between 8 and 32 years in prison, $5,000 and $1,000,000 in fines, or both. Mandatory parole of 3 years.
Level 2 drug felony: Between 4 and 8 years in prison (aggravated range of 8 to 14 years), $3,000 and $750,000 in fines, or both. Mandatory parole of 2 years.
Level 3 drug felony: Between 2 to 4 years in prison (aggravated range of 4 to 6 years), $2,000 and $500,000 in fines, or both. Mandatory parole of 1 year.
Level 4 drug felony: Between 6 to 12 months in prison (aggravated range of 1 to 2 years), $1,000 and $100,000 in fines, or both. Mandatory parole of 1 year.
Not every person convicted of a felony will go to prison. Judges take several factors into consideration when handing down a sentence, such as:
The law authorizes several different sentencing options, including:
In some cases, the judge will hand down the prison sentence but hold off on sending the offender to prison. Here, the judge stays (suspends) the prison sentence and places the offender on probation subject to conditions. The prison sentence hangs over the defendant's head as an incentive to comply with probation conditions, which could include serving a short jail sentence, meeting with a probation officer, abstaining from alcohol or drugs, attending counseling, maintaining employment, and remaining law-abiding. A defendant who violates probation could end up with additional probation conditions or be sent to prison.
Colorado has a somewhat unique sentencing system. Most states either use what's called a determinate or an indeterminate sentencing structure, but Colorado uses parts of both. Here's a brief overview of how it works.
At sentencing, a judge can impose any fixed (determinate) sentence within the limits set by the legislature (see above). This fixed sentence represents the longest an inmate can serve in prison.
The law also offers certain offenders the chance to apply for discretionary parole release, which is reviewed and granted by a parole board. (Parole release is generally part of indeterminate sentencing systems.) While not guaranteed, parole offers inmates a way to shave significant time off of their fixed sentence through good behavior in prison.
Parole eligibility. Offenders generally become eligible to apply for parole release once they've served 50 or 75 percent of their fixed sentence, depending on their convicted offense and criminal history. This eligibility date can be extended for misconduct. Some offenders are not eligible for parole by virtue of their offense.
Earned credits. Certain offenders can also accrue earned time credits and apply for parole even earlier than the halfway mark. Inmates earn these credits for progress on goals, such as educational or treatment goals.
Minimums apply. An offender who earns credits can be eligible for parole review as early as after completing 25 percent of their sentence. Inmates whose sentences include a mandatory minimum won't be eligible for release until the minimum sentence is served.
The Colorado State Board of Parole reviews parole applications and has the authority to grant, defer, or deny discretionary parole. If parole is denied, an offender must wait another year to apply (three years for certain sex offenders). When the board grants parole, it will set conditions and length of parole, subject to the mandatory parole term identified above. An offender who violates parole must go before the board again to decide if parole will be revoked.
Say an offender receives a conviction for a Class 2 felony, punishable by 8 to 24 years in prison. The judge hands down a fixed prison sentence of 12 years. At the latest, the offender must be released from prison after serving the 12 years but may become eligible for discretionary parole release after serving 6 years (assuming good behavior). If the offender also accrues earned time credits, the offender could be eligible for parole release in as little as 3 to 4 years. The parole board reviews the offender's application for parole. If granted, the offender must serve at least 3 years on parole (the mandatory term). If the parole board denies release, the prisoner can apply again in a year and every year thereafter.
If you're charged with a felony offense in Colorado, contact a criminal defense attorney right away. A conviction becomes part of your permanent criminal record. If you're convicted later of another crime, the court can consider your prior conviction and impose a harsher sentence in the new case. Even if you don't go to prison, a conviction can hurt you when you apply for a job, housing, loan, or professional license.
(Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 17-2-201, 17-22.5-403, 18-1.3-21, 19-1.3-401, 18-1.3-401.5, 18-1.3-402, 18-1.3-403 (2021).)