City closer to court reform ordinance
ALAMOSA — Courthouse rules are changing in Alamosa.
Even before last fall’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado negative report on Alamosa’s municipal court system, city leaders had begun working on changes to comply with new legislation and increase the efficiency of the court.
An ordinance outlining many of those changes will be coming before the Alamosa city council for first reading next Wednesday, Jan. 17. Councilors and city staff during a Wednesday work session discussed many of the changes including decriminalizing a good share of the city code violations.
That means jail would not be one of the possible penalties for those offenses unless the city prosecutor asked for it to be put back on the table or the crime was the third offense in two years. The council and Alamosa Police Chief Duane Oakes said they believed “three strikes” was a good rule of thumb for placing jail back in the hopper as a possible penalty, not that the judge would necessarily sentence the defendant to jail but would have that option.
“To be clear, there’s nothing in this ordinance that says after the third or fourth offense you are going to go to jail,” explained City Attorney Erich Schwiesow. “What it says is after the third offense then jail is on the table. It’s up to the judge.”
Jail would also remain an option even on first offenses for certain offenses. Oakes recommended about 16 offenses from a list of city code violations that he believed should continue to include jail as a potential sentencing penalty. Primarily those involve physical safety situations such as reckless driving, careless driving causing bodily injury, assault, reckless endangerment, resisting a police officer and weapons charges.
Right now pretty much all city code violations include the possibility of a jail sentence. One of the reasons the city council plans to decriminalize most of those violations is a financial one. To comply with new legislative changes, the city must offer court appointed counsel for defendants who could face jail time, which at this point is everyone.
Schwiesow said the possibility of putting jail back on the table under certain circumstances or for repeat offenses creates an “on ramp.”
He said the proposed city ordinance also gives the court an “off ramp.” For example, the city prosecutor could ask the judge to take jail off the table for an offense that would normally include that option. Again, that would be up to the judge, Schwiesow explained.
He added there is no way to foresee every circumstance. “It’s very good to build in some flexibility so that the people who are in charge of enforcing the ordinance have the flexibility … within bounds,” he said.
The ordinance going before council next week will also include the option of deferred sentences. New Municipal Judge James McDonald has requested that as an option, Schwiesow said. In a deferred sentence, a defendant pleads guilty on the condition he or she will fulfill terms of the deferred sentence within a certain amount of time, and if the defendant completes those requirements, the charge goes away.
Schwiesow said in discussions with the ACLU, that organization seemed to think the city’s current plan was a good one. The city is not continuing discussions with ACLU but had shared with them some of the city’s planned municipal court changes.
Councilman Charles Griego said he believed it was important for the ACLU to know that the city had made improvements or is making improvements to its municipal court system — “we are doing something.”
City Manager Heather Brooks said, “We are not having ongoing discussions … This is a bear I don’t want to be poking at, to be honest.” She said the city did not necessarily agree with everything in the ACLU report, and the changes the city is making are not just related to the ACLU report but are for the improvement of the city. Some of them were in the works before the report was issued.
Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman said, “The important thing we have to remember is we are doing what’s right for our community … Whether they are watching over our shoulder or not, we are going to do what’s right.”
Other updates the council discussed during its municipal court work session included:
- The court has begun scheduling regular arraignment dates (for about two months now), but so far only about half of the defendants have shown up for them, court clerks told the council Wednesday night. The staff and council had an extensive discussion about what to do to make defendants accountable and get them to court. For example, warrants could be issued for not appearing. Judge McDonald’s first arraignment date will be this Monday, so more will be known about how he will handle the no-shows.
- The council has not yet set up a judicial performance advisory board and will likely hold a future work session to discuss it. Schwiesow said he did not think that board needed to be activated until the new judge had been on the bench for a while because there is nothing to review yet.
- Sentencing options involving rehabilitation services for the defendants are either underway or soon to be activated. For example, the city just received word it will receive funding for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. The city will work with the Center for Restorative Programs to administer the LEAD program. (See separate story.) The city also now has a contract with Advantage Treatment Centers. These options will reduce the number of municipal offenders being incarcerated in the county jail.
“We are trying to break the cycle,” Brooks said.
The city is also continuing its adult and juvenile diversion program, which has already handled 45 juveniles and 10 adults.
- The council talked about options for people who cannot or will not pay their fines and costs. People cannot be jailed solely for failure to pay. City Clerk/Court Clerk Holly Martinez said one option instead of fines is useful public service, something many courts are doing. That is up to the judge. She said there are a number of people who have not paid their fines and costs. Schwiesow said the judge can waive fines but not court costs. Martinez said she has contacted the state collection service, and a signed contract is pending with that agency to manage collections for the municipal court. The city council will also be reviewing its fine schedule.
The council plans another work session related to the municipal court on March 7.