Colorado public defenders’ clients more often sentenced to jail or prison than private attorneys’ clients, new data shows

State public defender’s office says it doesn’t have confidence in researchers’ conclusions

Shelly Bradbury
Denver Post
Summit Daily News archive
The Summit County Justice Center is pictured in Breckenridge.
Summit Daily News archive

If you’re charged with a serious crime and can’t afford to hire an attorney, you’re more likely to end up in jail or prison than someone with more money across much of Colorado’s Front Range, according to new research from a half-dozen district attorneys.

People charged with felonies who are represented solely by public defenders have been incarcerated at higher rates than people who can afford to hire private attorneys in five judicial districts across the Front Range, including at times in Denver, Boulder, Jefferson, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, according to the data, which examined cases from 2017 on as part of an effort by eight district attorney’s offices to increase public transparency.

The trend is most clear in the First Judicial District, which covers Jefferson and Gilpin counties, and in the 18th Judicial District, which covers Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties. Both districts saw a shift in 2020 in which felony clients of public defenders began to be sentenced to incarceration more than felony clients of private attorneys.

In 2017, 2018 and 2019, the rate of incarceration was similar for felony clients of both public defenders and private attorneys in those districts. But starting in 2020, a higher percentage of clients of public defenders were sentenced to incarceration.

In 2021 in the 18th Judicial District, 52% of felony defendants with private attorneys were incarcerated, compared to 59% of cases with public defenders. So far this year, 54% of private clients were jailed or imprisoned, compared to 61% of cases with public defenders.

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