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Experience in criminal justice system should inform Colorado policy, stakeholders say

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Lindsey Toomer

(Colorado Newsline) People who have been affected by the criminal legal system should have more opportunity to influence the formation of criminal justice policy in Colorado, stakeholders said during a meeting Monday.

The Working Group on Transforming Criminal and Juvenile Justice had its third meeting at the Ralph Carr Judicial Center in Denver. Members are developing ideas for a new entity or entities that will refer criminal justice policy proposals to the Colorado Legislature, and they heard from stakeholders who are interested in what that new government body will look like. Colorado Governor Jared Polis established the group to create a replacement for the now defunct Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. 

The commission advised the Legislature on criminal justice policy for 15 years, but the Legislature decided to sunset it this year. Some lawmakers said the commission had served its purpose, while others protested that the CCJJ didn’t meaningfully include people with lived experiences in the criminal justice system. 

Members of the working group include representatives from law enforcement, victim advocates, criminal defense experts and state legislators, as well as leadership from various state departments. On Monday, people with relevant experience who are not on the board shared their thoughts and ideas with the group.

Many community advocates told members of the working group that new policy should be formed with more input from people who have been affected by the criminal justice system. The CCJJ, they said, became too overwhelmed by system perspectives, and several stakeholders warned against repeating this. 

Melissa Martin, executive director of Tribe Recovery Homes, said criminal justice is inherently connected to mental health and substance use disorders and that it’s nearly impossible to recommend meaningful, relevant policy without the input of those who work in this realm daily.

For this to happen effectively, some advocates said it has to be done with intention, meeting community members where they’re at. Shannon Bucci is an advocate who talked about her own experience in the criminal legal system, noting how inaccessible commission meetings are for people with lived experiences and how dominated by system authorities the CCJJ and similar government bodies tend to be. 

“People are struggling, and instead of providing assistance and addressing the root causes that lead to involvement within the criminal legal system, we are punishing people for struggling,” Bucci told the working group. “Law enforcement struggles, too. Prosecutors struggle. Judges, legislators, we all struggle — but it’s rare for people in positions of authority or power to face the same consequences that we do, which is why it is essential to include the voices of those with lived experience in these conversations.”

Bucci said many of the people who have been arrested or gone through trials are afraid to share their experience out of fear of being tokenized. They also can’t afford to leave their jobs to volunteer time to a body seeking their feedback without some kind of compensation. The length and timing of meetings also made them inaccessible to people who work.

Experts who work directly with youth said the working group should consider establishing a separate entity focused on juvenile justice systems because of how different they are from adult systems. Nicole Duncan, a defense attorney who works with youth, said going into community spaces, as opposed to having people come to government spaces, could lead to more meaningful engagement and collaboration.

“If we’re looking at things that work and looking at the realm of youth justice and the idea that children are different, then I think we also need orgs or committees that also look at that different from the whole of the criminal justice system,” Duncan said. “We have to shift away from who we typically consider to be experts and go beyond that theoretical expertise.” 

Brian Mason, district attorney for Colorado’s 17th Judicial District, which includes Adams and Broomfield counties, told the working group how all of his experiences with the CCJJ were positive and that the “unexpected death of the CCJJ was a setback for criminal justice reform.”

“To have a district attorney and the public defender’s office agree on public policy, particularly after we very rarely agree in the courtroom, was unique and I think worthy of praise,” Mason said. “As this working group works to reach a consensus on what the next iteration should be… I really hope that you will use the same commitment to a collaborative model of bringing people together who are subject matter experts in the criminal justice system, and also people who genuinely want to make the criminal justice system better.” 

The working group will hold a virtual meeting on Jan. 3 to hear additional public testimony, with the next regular meeting set for Jan. 5 at the Judicial Center. The goal is for the working group to make recommendations on the development of a future policy entity by March 1. 

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