Violent crime has risen in Colorado, and that fact figures to be a defining feature of the 2022 election season and the state’s upcoming legislative session.
But while the crime rate has drawn widespread and bipartisan concern, there is nothing approaching consensus on how best to fix it. The Denver Post spoke with a dozen politicians, crime experts, law enforcement officials and others, and found that the policy prescription is complex, a long game that involves structural reforms to take people out of the states of desperation that can catalyze criminal behavior.
To the extent a singular boogeyman exists, the Democrats leading Colorado state government seem to agree, it is underinvestment in areas proven to help prevent crime in the first place — living wages, behavioral health supports, education, community-building programs.
The problem for policymakers is that those structural items aren’t easily or quickly reformed.
“The social world is really messy and there’s a lot of different things taking place simultaneously,” said criminologist David Pyrooz, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
And, he said, politicians seeking “silver bullet” solutions “kick the can a lot of times.” They seek to hire more police, or add tougher sentencing laws, or attack bond policies that affect who can get out of jail and when.
“It’s the little simple patch, the Band Aid today, without dealing with the larger response,” he said.
FBI data show the violent crime rate — which factors in crimes like homicide, robbery, assault, among others — reached a 25-year high in Colorado in 2020.
At a rate of 423 per 100,000 — that’s about the national rate — Colorado is still far below early 1990s violent crime rates that eclipsed 700 per 100,00. It’s also well above rates that hovered just above 300 per 100,000 for most of the last decade.
In his requested budget for Colorado’s next fiscal year, which begins in July, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis proposes to spend more money on crime prevention than at any point since he took office in 2019. That plan is not official and must go through review by the legislature, but, notably, it presumes that Colorado’s violent crime issues should be solved primarily through interventions that do not necessarily involve more punishment.
He lays out $32 million to expand residential treatment capacity for youth with behavioral health issues, plus $10 million to hire nearly 100 new people to expand capacity at the Colorado Mental Health Institute. He proposes $36 million for “community” investments around public safety, such as improved lighting, expansion of local mental health resources and grants for school-based mental health interventions. He wants to put $6 million to domestic violence prevention, and another $7 million toward recidivism reduction so that people do not commit new crimes and end up back behind bars.
“The best way to improve public safety is to prevent a crime from occurring before it occurs. And to do that, we have proven models that have been demonstrated both in Colorado and nationally,” Polis said in an interview. “Whenever you’re catching it and you’re prosecuting people, it’s sadly already too late. There’s already a victim. and that victim has lost a great deal, whether it’s physical injury or property or psychological trauma.”
Heidi Ganahl, the University of Colorado regent seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2022, said directing these funds “towards offenders” is the wrong approach. Essentially, she argued, Polis’ proposal represents a soft stance on violent crime — something she said is the “clear number one issue” she’s hearing about on the campaign trail.
She has promised that if elected she would “reinstate bail.”
“Trusting criminals to show up is not working right now,” she said.
This was the first problem identified by state Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican who serves on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. He agreed with others that the solution to violent crime is highly nuanced and said he supports a lot of the values expressed by the governor’s budget proposal. But, he said, “We need to take a good hard look and reverse this trend that some of my colleagues across the aisle were so fond of, which is doing away with bond altogether.”
He added, “It’s a culture thing, in the sense of holding those who commit offenses accountable, holding them accountable to show up in court.”
Though many progressive advocates had hoped to eliminate money bond in Colorado, and indeed backed bills meant to lay groundwork for that, money bond is very much alive in this state. The Colorado legislature has pursued a wide variety of criminal justice reforms since Democrats took over three years ago, but it’s taken no action to make bond practices more lenient for violent offenders. These matters are primarily at the discretion of the judiciary.
Denver 7 found recently that Denver has seen a rise in the use of personal recognizance bonds — promises to return to court when the time comes — including for people committing crimes with clear victims, like auto theft. That’s something Ganahl and Gardner both said needs to be reversed. Gardner said he’s been in talks on possible legislation to that effect, though any such bill would face the uphill climb of passing a Democrat-controlled legislature.
Evidence does not suggest people released on personal recognizance bonds are more likely to commit crimes than people who have money bond set for them, said Rebecca Wallace of the Colorado Freedom Fund, a lobbyist on criminal justice issues at the Capitol.
“Rates of rearrest and court appearance were roughly the same between people released on a personal recognizance bond and people released on a monetary bond. This has been reflected in years of data from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice since 2013,” she wrote in an email.
Wallace has been among the core group of advocates and lawmakers working to end money bond in Colorado, arguing that it unfairly keeps poor people behind bars while people of means can get out. Polis agrees with this assessment and seemed uninterested in stricter bond laws in the 2022 legislative session, which begins in January.
But it seems likely, too, that the legislature will slow its march on the reform front this year. A key election is coming up, and public perception about crime rates can be compelling to lawmakers, Pyrooz said.
“Nuance doesn’t do well in politics,” he said.
Colorado lawmakers who have frequently championed reforms Republicans like Ganahl criticize as anti-police and soft on crime denied that there’s any coordinated plan for a quieter 2022 session on this front.
“No one’s asked me to cool anything. No one’s asked me to stop. But I’m sure the conversations are happening,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who added that her focus this year will be less on sentencing and punishment and more on interventions such as housing and behavioral health support.
The city’s district attorney, Beth McCann, said she, like others, has struggled to pinpoint the prescription for the crime rise. But she said she’s fairly certain that tougher laws, including further incarceration, are not the answer. Arrest rates fell in Denver during the pandemic, as they did around the country, but she doesn’t think that bringing those rates back up will make people safer.
“That’s always the response, but it doesn’t work. That’s what we did in the early 90s, right? Everybody went to jail and we increased our penalties,” she said. “Yes, that stops some people, but it hasn’t stopped crime.
“We have to hold people accountable for criminal behavior but I think we also need to look at the harder question: What can we do as a community to prevent crime from happening in the first place?”
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