My good friend and fellow elected district attorney of Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties Martin Beeson wrote a letter to The Daily Sentinel recently condemning the work done thus far by the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ). While I share wholeheartedly his goal of preserving public safety, as one of two elected district attorneys who have actually been working on the CCJJ, I need to strongly disagree with his conclusions. His fundamental contention is that treatment does not work; I have seen dramatic proof to the contrary here in my own jurisdiction.
There is no doubt that incarcerating violent and repeat criminals works and enhances public safety. Indeed, I will take a backseat to no one in my dedication to locking up these types of criminals; my office conducts more felony jury trials per capita and plea bargains fewer cases per capita than any other in the state. Without doubt, every day a violent criminal spends locked up in prison is another day in which he cannot victimize an innocent citizen.
I have learned through 22 years as a Colorado prosecutor, however, that I don’t know it all and I’m not always right. For many years, we thought that treatment couldn’t help methamphetamine addicts and that the only answer was to lock them all up. They still remained addicts and were still likely to commit new crimes upon their release. As a direct result, Mesa County saw all-time highs in numbers of felony cases in the mid 2000s (a record 2,223 in 2005). I became convinced we had to try something different. Together with the Mesa County commissioners, we thus created the methamphetamine Fast Track program and the Summit View treatment facility.
Since enacting and funding these innovative and effective treatment programs, Mesa County has seen a consistent and dramatic decline in annual felony case filings. Our crime rate has gone down every year since 2005, to a low of 1,812 new cases in 2009. Clearly a huge contributor to these declines is the creation of the treatment program. I have thus witnessed graphic proof on the local level that effective drug treatment works to reduce and prevent crime!
Our goal throughout has been to find ways to eliminate criminal behavior. If a drug addiction is causing criminal behavior and we can eliminate that criminal behavior by eliminating the addiction, I believe it would be irresponsible not to pursue that alternative. Ask any victim of crime: would you rather have the person who victimized you locked up longer or would you prefer to never have been victimized in the first place? Every single crime victim I’ve ever worked with would unhesitatingly choose the latter.
Martin Beeson is without doubt correct that there are a number of liberal legislators who believe all in law enforcement are jack booted Nazis who enjoy locking up people just for the fun of it. These people do in fact want to unilaterally slash criminal sentences across the board. That is absolutely not what the CCJJ has been about. Indeed, the CCJJ has rejected every proposal submitted to it to reduce sentences for violent criminals, for habitual criminals, for crimes against children and for drug dealers. Instead, the CCJJ has recommended reducing sentences for some simple drug possession charges and using those dollars to fund effective treatment across the state based largely on the model we have created here in Mesa County.
The members of the CCJJ include many people who have devoted their entire careers to law enforcement and public safety. In addition to myself they include: Attorney General John Suthers, 17 Judicial District, District Attorney Don Quick, Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson, Golden Police Chief Bill Kilpatrick, former Denver Police Chiefs Ari Zavaras and Dave Michaud, former prosecutors Pete Weir and Jeanne Smith and victims advocates Rhonda Fields and Steve Siegel. None of these are people who would ever put their name to proposals that they believe would undermine public safety. They are all people, however, who are willing to consider new ideas and the possibility that preventing crimes from ever happening might be the best thing for society.
— Pete Hautzinger
Text of Beeson's letter:
Recently, an alarming report was issued by the Governor’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. The recommendations in the report represent the beginnings of an all-out assault upon the criminal justice system and public safety.
The state of Colorado currently finds itself in the throes of tough economic times. In such times, it is tempting, but dangerous, to cut spending on public safety. Yet this is precisely what the commission is recommending to the Legislature.
Issues of public safety should not be decided in the distracting environment of budgetary shortfalls. When such an environment prevails, bad decisions are made. When bad decisions are made, people die, women and children are horribly abused and drunken drivers escalate the dangers on our roads. If the Legislature transforms these recommendations into laws, those laws will usher in incalculable human costs.
A Washington state study was cherry picked for use by the commission as the model to emulate. This study advocates retreat from incarceration of criminals, instead relying more upon treatment and intervention as the means to reduce crime and recidivism. It is no surprise then that the commission’s findings and recommendations follow suit. In short, the governor’s commission recommends we attempt to reduce crime and recidivism by creating government bureaucracies to oversee and administer treatment programs intended to fix the bad guys. This has been tried before. Its result has always been the same: dismal failure.
The process used by commission has been, from its inception, fundamentally dishonest and deceitful. It is dishonest in that, although it speaks of safeguarding public safety, its main goal is cutting costs. It is also dishonest in that it lays the groundwork for future claims of reducing crime and recidivism when in reality it:
✓ Merely redefines certain behaviors out of the realm of criminal conduct;
✓ Redefines other felony behaviors as misdemeanors;
✓ Redefines still other behaviors as no longer being parole/probation violations.
Future claims of reductions in crime and recidivism based upon these exclusions will bear no relation to reality or public safety. Finally, the process is deceitful in that it severely compromises public safety in the very name of public safety. Indeed, this is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.
To be fair, some members of the commission fought valiantly to mitigate the damage that the commission as a whole is doing. Theirs was a losing battle from the beginning. The game was rigged with foregone conclusions. The commission’s task was to justify the predetermined goal of reducing sentences for criminal offenders in order to reduce the cost of incarcerating those who have earned the right to be in prison.
If the governor is truly interested in protecting the public, he should do three things. First, he must undertake this review of the criminal justice system in an environment free of budgetary pressures. Only then can a dispassionate review and evaluation be accomplished. Second, he should create a commission with members whose sole agenda is public safety rather than the advancement of a courtroom strategy or a political ideology. Third, he needs to ensure that there are no predetermined paths to follow or goals to achieve, other than the safety of citizens.
The path the existing commission has embarked upon is dangerous. It is a path of Russian roulette. If its initial report is any indication of the direction its planned long-term study will go, we can expect more bullets in the chamber. Sooner or later a round will be in the chamber when the trigger is pulled.
Below is a link to the Web site wherein the report can be accessed. Read it and make your own determination as to the efficacy of the recommendations. Then let your legislators know that our safety must be their paramount concern. The ramifications of these recommendations are significant. If they are made law, they will bring enormous human cost.
The Web site is cdpsweb.state.co.us/cccjj/PDF/2009_Nov_Report/SB09-286-Report_11-30-09.pdf
Martin Beeson is the district attorney for the 9th Judicial District, which includes Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties. He lives in Glenwood Springs.