Opinion | Heidi McCollum: Working to reduce recidivism and incarceration
Fifth Judicial District attorney candidate
Victims vs. defendants’ rights vs. prosecutors vs. jail time vs. community safety. Who or what is most important? As prosecutors, our job is to do justice. Balancing the players in a given case can be challenging; so who or what is most important? It depends.
No two cases can be treated exactly the same. The circumstances of any one crime can vary in multiple ways including the date, time of day, type of crime, relationship between the parties, weapons used, state of mind of the parties, severity of any injuries, witnesses’ perceptions and any number of other factors. So let’s embrace the uniqueness of each case and treat them as just that: unique.
When someone has been charged with a low-level crime, it is appropriate to weigh these factors to determine what is most important. Possibly it is a crime stemming from a defendant’s addiction behavior. Is prosecuting a theft by that defendant more important than trying to treat and address the addiction? It depends on what the goal is.
It is critical for a district attorney to ask these questions in every case. Currently in the Fifth Judicial District under District Attorney Bruce Brown, there are two distinct diversion programs that are set up to address underlying behavior, rather than solely focusing on the crime.
Kids very often make bad decisions. Sometimes those decisions lead to contact with law enforcement and the criminal courts. Juvenile diversion offers a path for kids to not have formal charges filed against them, or if formal charges have been filed, a chance to get those charges completely dismissed without having to maneuver through the criminal courts.
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We work tirelessly with law enforcement to receive referrals from officers who have had contact with juveniles for criminal behavior. Before tickets are written, some juvenile cases can be reviewed for diversion eligibility. As teenagers, children’s minds and critical-thinking skills are still developing. Anyone with a teenager has heard the same response to the quintessential question, “What were you thinking?” And we all know the answer, “I don’t know.” On diversion, a juvenile can make amends for their actions, pay restitution, complete community service and earn a sense of accomplishment and forgiveness.
Much like juvenile diversion, adult diversion is a program that offers adults who have been charged with a low-level felony the ability to avoid a felony conviction. No one sets out to hold a title of being a convicted felon. Even adults can make really bad decisions. Adult diversion offers individuals a second chance. The adult diversion program focuses heavily on treatment specifically addressing the needs of individual defendants. Diversion participants likewise make amends for their actions, pay restitution, complete community service and earn forgiveness. They also get to go through the rest of their lives with no felony conviction on their record! Their cases are dismissed as they have worked to learn appropriate techniques to deal with difficult situations in their lives by addressing underlying mental health and addiction issues.
I have seen first-hand how alternative justice programs like diversion can positively affect lives. Making a commitment to determining who or what is most important, and to treat every case individually, is critical to truly seeking justice. What we don’t have in our community is a comprehensive and robust restorative justice process.
The phrase “restorative justice” is thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean and what does it mean in our community? Restorative justice focuses on rehabilitation of offenders through engagement with victims and the community at large. It is typically implemented through a variety of methods which center around victim and offender mediation and dialogue used to seek an end-result of apologies, reparation or compensation, and community service, thus drastically reducing recidivism rates.
Victims, family members, and community members jointly participate in different methods of dialogue to ultimately support the victim and the person who harmed them. As simple as it sounds, this process, when facilitated in a safe and supportive environment, is amazing to witness.
I was asked to talk about my priorities and my platform in the race for district attorney. My priorities are doing what’s right for the members of my community. Providing alternatives to incarceration and trying to lower the 50% recidivism rate of individuals being released from Colorado prisons. Above all, balancing the various aspects of each case individually and always making sure to ask the question: Who or what is most important?
Heidi McCollum is a candidate for Fifth Judicial District attorney.
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