Virginia Walcher came to hear the panel that included her son Sheriff Dave Walcher.
BY FREDA MIKLIN
Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church at 10150 E. Belleview Ave. in Greenwood Village and Centennial (city boundaries bifurcate the campus) hosted an Americans for Prosperity program about criminal justice reform. Matt Soper, a legal scholar trained at the University of Edinburgh Law School who is on the board of two law journals, and current Republican candidate for statehouse district 54, moderated the panel comprised of Arapahoe County Sheriff Dave Walcher, state Rep. Cole Wist, 18th Judicial district attorney and Republican candidate for state attorney general George Brauchler, Centennial Mayor Stephanie Piko, and Dianne Tramutola-Lawson, chair of Colorado-CURE.
The moderator talked about panelists’ backgrounds. Walcher has been in law enforcement for 37 years and is co-chair of the Colorado Correctional Treatment Board of the state’s judicial branch. Wist is an attorney with 25 years of experience in health and employment law and workplace safety. Brauchler is a colonel in the U.S. Army reserves and served as the chief of military justice for Fort Carson and for the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq. Piko is a substitute teacher and computer technician in the Cherry Creek School District.
Colorado-Cure, chaired by Tramutola-Lawson, is an organization dedicated to reducing crime through multi-faceted reforms of the criminal justice system. The first three items on its list of issues are the abolition of the death penalty, compensation to crime victims, and a moratorium on prison construction. They are working for what they view as the greater good of all parties touched by crime.
Among those listening intently in the crowd of 80 interested citizens were Greenwood Village Mayor Ron Rakowsky and Virginia Walcher, the sheriff’s mother. Rakowsky serves on the Arapahoe County Justice Coordinating Committee and has been its chair since 2004.
The youngest of the Brauchler children, Graham, led the Pledge of Allegiance, with GV Mayor Ron Rakowskyand moderator Matt Soper looking on.
Soper posed the question, “Is the cash bail system unfair to the poor, forcing the innocent to accept plea bargains?” Rep. Cole Wist said the driving factor for bail should be public safety, not ability to pay. Brauchler said the ultimate goal is to reduce the number of people who are in jail or prison. To do so, it is important to step back and look at what people are doing to end up in jail. He talked about an experiment he did recently to determine if people already “in the system” were re-offending. Brauchler asked all 22 district attorneys in the state to look at all the felony cases filed by their offices for one week. He found that 51 percent of them were committed by people at liberty but still connected to the criminal justice system, i.e., on parole, probation, community corrections, etc. Walcher reiterated the theme that the goal is public safety. Then he said that 60 percent of Arapahoe County jail inmates are there pending trials (likely unable to pay bail). He said the average length of stay in the jail is 22 days, but most inmates are there two to three days
That seemed to confirm Soper’s premise that those who are financially unable to pay bail are more likely to accept a plea bargain to get out, whether they are guilty or innocent.
Soper moved on to a much more complicated issue when he asked, “How can we as a society reduce the recidivism rate and how can people who have been incarcerated re-enter society successfully by getting a job, housing, etc.?”
That question got Trautola-Lawson’s attention, who shared that in Maine and Vermont, citizens never lose their right to vote. Some audience members began to seriously consider why anyone loses that right? Criminals must pay for their crimes, but they are still citizens. Some wondered if letting them continue to exercise their right to vote might be a small price for society to pay to help criminals feel less disconnected, thus able to successfully return to society when their debt is paid. Trautola-Lawson said there was a nonprofit organization called Remerg Colorado dedicated to reducing recidivism by helping former convicts re-enter society.
Walcher pointed out that it is crucial to help people get out of jail as soon as possible, as long as they are not a safety threat. He said if people are in jail for a period of time, they lose everything—jobs, housing and even their families. On the subject of minimizing recidivism, he gave examples of skills inmates can learn, like cooking and dog-training.
Brauchler had an interesting idea. He said that those who run jails have the wrong incentives. He proposed an innovative approach to incarceration, saying, “What if we had a system whereby people who work in and manage prisons received a (financial) benefit if those leaving the facilities did not reoffend?”
Wist continued with the theme of negative incentives. He pointed out that the Department of Corrections’ budget is based on prisoner count, which incentivizes estimating high to get a larger budget from the legislature. He also pointed out that 95 percent of state prison inmates will return to society. If they do so with continuing untreated mental health and substance abuse issues, they are much more likely to return.
Continuing on the theme of lack of treatment, Tramutola-Lawson said that only four out of 20 state prisons offer anger management classes, something that should be available at every facility. Further, she said that of the 20,000 inmates presently incarcerated in Colorado’s prisons, 2,000 are awaiting sex-offender treatment, and they are ineligible to be paroled before they receive it. That is a problem that must be solved.
Soper next posed the question, “Are there too many crimes on our books?” Brauchler again answered with an innovative idea. He said, “If we sunset every criminal law after 10 years, we could review and debate what laws we should have and what penalties are appropriate. Walcher pointed out that Colorado has 80 specialty-type courts, including veterans’ court, where judges are more sensitized to issues like post-traumatic stress disorder. Wist said that he was involved in teen court as a volunteer attorney. Everyone involved in teen court looked for ways to teach soon-to-be adults about consequences and try to point them in the right direction before they were subject to grown-up penalties for their poor choices.
There was a discussion about mandatory minimum sentences that led to disagreement on the panel. Brauchler said that mandatory minimum sentences arose from the disparate sentencing of minorities, who got longer sentences. Tramutola-Lawson said that studies showed that shorter sentences could be more effective and perhaps earned time for good behavior should be increased from its current level of 10 days per month served. She said judges should decide sentences based on individual circumstances. People in the audience could find little reason to disagree with either Brauchler or Tramutola-Lawson, which seemed to demonstrate the very real challenges of criminal justice reform.
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