BY FREDA MIKLIN – GOVERNMENTAL REPORTER
In an address to the Arapahoe County Republican Breakfast Club at Maggiano’s DTC on June 2, John Kellner, 18th Judicial District Attorney, painted a stark picture of his office’s efforts to control rising crime while reducing the backlog of criminal cases awaiting trial due to the courts being mostly closed for a year.
During COVID, he explained, “Our case filings plummeted by about 26,000.” He said that the sheriff’s office, “had to make some tough calls because we have an obligation to people that we arrest and put in our jails,” thus they had to keep the jails from being overcrowded to avoid “COVID spreading like wildfire.” Additionally, he pointed out, “There was no throughput. There were no trials happening for the better part of about six months last year.” The sheriff adopted the policy that those charged with misdemeanors or class four, five, or six felonies would not be arrested, which Kellner did not dispute because of COVID, but he noted that those categories include many serious offenses. He continued, “Around February, when our courts started reopening, we started having trials again,” but it was done very slowly because lawyers and judges were concerned about risking jury members getting COVID.
As a result, there were 1,200 backlogged jury trials in Arapahoe County, where he said, 23 were tried in May and that was the most that his office could complete that month. With a current backlog of 1,000 jury trials, Kellner hopes to get 40 completed in June. At that rate, it will be impossible to get caught up and meet the Colorado statutory requirement of giving a defendant a trial within six months. As a result, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced HB21-1309, pending as of this writing, that would extend the speedy trial requirement by up to six months for defendants not presently incarcerated and three months for those in custody. Extensions of the six-month requirement could not be granted after April 29, 2022.
Although 20% fewer cases were filed in the 18th judicial district in 2020 than in an average year, the inability to have them adjudicated has left 6,000 unresolved. Kellner is seeking resources to add additional prosecutors. Despite fewer cases being filed, he said, “I think the rise in crime that we’ve seen has a whole lot to do with the justice system shutting down due to COVID,” adding that attempted murder and robbery filings each went up 30%, gun offenses went up 25%, and burglaries increased by nearly 20%.
Kellner was highly critical of the two senate bills introduced this year to reduce the jail population in Colorado, SB21-062 and its successor, SB21-273, both of which were eventually withdrawn or defeated. However, he did say that, “I think people who are proposing reforms have in their hearts good intentions. I don’t think they want crime to go up…but they view the causes of crime differently than I do as somebody who is actually in the criminal justice system on a day-in, day-out basis.”
Jimmy Sengenberger, who is 29 and has a Saturday evening radio show on 710KNUS, asked Kellner, “What are the circumstances in which somebody who is undocumented or an illegal immigrant reports a crime to law enforcement where they might be subject to deportation?” The district attorney responded that that subject “is a source of a lot of misinformation and confusion,” adding, “A victim of crime is a victim of crime in our community, whether or not they’re documented. When somebody who is undocumented is a victim of crime, I’ll apply for a U-visa (which is) me telling the federal government that this person may be deportable for whatever reason, but I need them here to help address the criminal acts of someone else in our community. We apply for those all the time. They’re granted all the time. It’s a way for us to ensure that there’s not a group of people who are fair game for criminals who might prey on them.” He gave the example of a contractor who might cheat an employee or subcontractor out of wages due that person because the contractor knows the employee or subcontractor is undocumented and can’t do anything about it. “I’m not going to allow that to happen in our community, I don’t think you would want that to happen…” the district attorney said, adding, “Justice is justice and it’s meant to be blind.”
Elected officials attending the event on June 2 were, from Centennial, Mayor Stephanie Piko, City Councilmembers Don Sheehan and Mike Sutherland, and former Mayor Cathy Noon with her husband Jim Noon. Candidates for Aurora City Council at large Dustin Zvonek and Danielle Jurinski were also there, along with Centennial city council candidate for district one Robyn Carnes, Republican Party state vice-chair Priscilla Rahn, and former Arapahoe County chairs Rich Sokol and Dorothy Gottlieb. A new face in Republican politics, Erik Aadland, a decorated military veteran who is looking at taking on one of our state’s well-known Democratic incumbents was introduced to the group.