Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office opens application process for charitable fund
The Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office has opened the application process for the 2019 Charitable Contribution Fund, offering tens of thousands in grant funding for local nonprofits dedicated to providing assistance to victims of crimes and helping to prevent criminal activity.
“The thought process is that it’s a component of restorative justice,” said District Attorney Bruce Brown. “We have a pretty robust pool of money that varies between about $65,000 and $100,000 a year throughout the district, and we want to make sure those contributions that come directly from people who have harmed the community go directly to the places that can help repair it.”
The Charitable Contributions Fund has been a tool in the District Attorney’s Office since at least the early 1990s, though it’s seen a number of altercations over the years, including an overhaul in 2013 under Brown’s supervision to create more transparency in who is making contributions, and where that money is going.
The program works by offering criminal offenders, typically of low-level crimes or plea-by-mail defendants, the chance to donate to the fund in exchange for a dismissal or reduction in charges, or in lieu of punitive sanctions like a day in jail. For example, if someone is caught driving with a suspended or revoked license (the most common charges associated with the program) they could choose to make a contribution to the fund instead of a guilty plea which would only reimpose or extend the suspension or revocation.
“We know that people who have that kind of offense, whether we like it or not, are going to keep driving,” said Brown. “So it becomes a vicious cycle. With a number of suspended or revoked charges you may get your license suspended for five or six years. Rather than do that, we offer a reduction or a dismissal of the charge for people who are willing to make a charitable contribution. So we think it’s a good program all around for the community.”
Applications for the program are reviewed by the Charitable Contribution Committee, composed of Brown, deputy district attorneys and community representatives. In addition to providing funds for nonprofits, the program also serves to help clear often crowded court dockets of petty offenses the community supports dismissing.
“The last thing the courts want to do is bring in a jury panel and use court resources to try a case on a suspended license,” continued Brown. “That’s why the program has been supported through the courts by allowing the District Attorney’s office to offer this option.”
Last year the fund provided more than $55,000 in grant funding to 16 different nonprofit organizations across the Fifth Judicial District (Summit, Clear Creek, Eagle and Lake counties). In Summit County, Advocates for Victims of Assault, CASA of the Continental Divide, the Family and Intercultural Resource Center, the Treetop Child Advocacy Center and Summit County 4H were all recipients of more than $18,000 in grants combined. The funds came from a total of 185 people, with a range of contributions from as little as $65 to as much as $1,800. Most contributions landed in the $150-300 range, though there’s quite a bit of variation.
Charitable contributions work differently from other financial penalties like court fines. Brown said that when an offender pays typical court fines, 90 cents of every dollar goes to the state’s general fund, whereas 100 percent of any charitable contribution goes directly to assisting local nonprofits.
But despite thousands in grants awarded each year, Brown said that it’s often difficult to measure the fund’s real impact on the community.
“What we don’t see ultimately is the impact,” said Brown. “What we do know is it’s passed through organizations who’s mission is to help our communities. So it becomes part of a lot of different resources.”
Lesley Mumford, executive director of Advocates for Victims of Assault, said that the money does come in handy, especially given that a majority of their donations come with hefty restrictions. Mumford said that almost 70 percent of the organization’s budget comes from restricted grants that require the money to be used directly for victim services, meaning the district’s contribution is one of a few that can help with general operating expenses like payroll and office supplies.
“It’s important to us as our target audience is victims of crimes,” said Mumford. “The fund is unrestricted, which allows us to creatively solve problems not specifically related to a grant, or on simple things like utility bills and paper for the copier. … It’s great that the DA’s office recognizes the importance of supporting these people beyond the criminal justice system, and how important helping people to heal after victimization is to the whole package.”
But the program also has its critics. Opponents fear that for the wealthy, a couple hundred dollars for a contribution is essentially a non-issue, and that the program places a heavier burden on individuals unable to raise the money on short-order. The district tries to combat that by offering useful community service as an alternative to the contribution, typically at an exchange rate of $25 an hour. In other words, six hours of community service would amount to a $150 contribution to the fund.
Brown also faced criticism that the program lacked transparency during his most recent election in 2016, an issue he has been trying to address since the program’s 2013 overhaul.
“It’s easy to see how people would feel that there’s risk, and there is, in any program where someone is asked to donate money not directly in terms of court fines,” said Brown. “That’s why we have to reach the highest standard of transparency and ethics in order to dispel any suspicion, and gain the confidence in our community that the program is being administered in a fair and honest fashion.”
The Fifth Judicial District’s website currently has readily available data on the program’s contributions and expenses from 2014 through 2018, providing detailed records on the dates and amounts of contributions and grants.
Nonprofits interested in applying for the fund can also find the application on the website. Applications must be submitted by Jan. 31 for consideration.
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