ALAMOSA — In an attempt to improve the municipal court system and save the city money, the Alamosa city council is considering an ordinance that would “decriminalize” many municipal offenses.
That would mean that jail time would not be a sentencing option for those charged with decriminalized offenses (minor theft or dog at large, for example), Alamosa City Attorney Erich Schwiesow explained during a Wednesday evening work session. It would not mean, however, that there would be no consequences for city violations.
• There would still be some offenses such as those posing danger to police and public safety — “there’s a handful of those” — that could be subject to jail time;
• The city prosecutor would have the option of requesting jail time as a possible sentence when he believed it was appropriate (or requesting it not be an option when it otherwise would be by virtue of the offense or repeat offense);
• And those who were more than three-time repeat offenders could still face jail time, Schwiesow explained, “because whatever the other options were before, they are not getting the message.”
He explained that with new state legislation, the city would be required to provide a defense attorney for any offenders for whom jail could be a sentencing option. Currently, all municipal offenses could theoretically result in up to a year in jail. If the city does not decriminalize some of those offenses — taking jail off the table as a sentencing option — the city court budget will greatly increase this year, Schwiesow explained.
Alamosa City Clerk/Municipal Court Clerk Holly Martinez shared costs for the past three years solely for court appointed counsel. In 2015, the city spent $5,204 to provide court-appointed counsel for defendants in municipal court. In 2016 the city paid $7,980 for court-appointed counsel, and in 2017 the city paid $15,787 for court-appointed counsel.
Martinez said the city budgeted $15,000 for this year.
That will not cover the costs for court-appointed counsel unless the city passes an ordinance decriminalizing many of the municipal offenses, City Manager Heather Brooks explained. She said city staff hoped the council would make changes to city ordinances, but if it does not, the city will exceed that $15,000 budgeted amount for defense counsel.
“We will have to have them there all the time,” she said. She said the city staff is also looking at contracting out defense counsel.
Councilor Kristina Daniel said the challenge is to balance decriminalization with consequences. “Decriminalization does not mean there’s not a punishment,” she said. “It just means it is not punishable with jail time.”
Schwiesow added, “Decriminalization is not a free pass. There is still punishment, but jail is off the table.”
He said municipal offenses by their very nature are lower level types of crime for which jail is usually not an appropriate sentence. More major crimes committed in the city would be cited into county court.
(The city council will continue this discussion during a work session next Wednesday and asked for a list of municipal offenses so they could have a better idea which ones should be “decriminalized” and which ones should still be potentially punishable by jail time.)
Schwiesow said what the city is looking at is partial decriminalization, because full decriminalization would mean nothing was an offense anymore, and that is not what the city is considering.
“We need to pull jail off the table for offenses that we know are not going to be jail-able offenses,” he explained.
He said he had no strong opinion on what offenses should be decriminalized and what offenses should not be.
“I do have a strong opinion about being clear what we are doing,” he said.
He added that by recently approved state statute offenders cannot be put in jail solely for not paying their fines and costs. The city must change its ordinance to reflect that, regardless of whatever changes it makes.
Schwiesow explained that if offenders are blatantly refusing to pay fine and costs, even though they can, they could face contempt of court, which might land them in jail, but they cannot be jailed because of an inability to pay fines and costs.
“We cannot throw people in jail for failure to pay their fines,” he said. “We are going to start turning them over to collections.”
Schwiesow added that the city has a new judge, and it is not certain what he will do in court, but the city council’s actions through its ordinance can give direction to the judge on what he is permitted to do. He said he has spoken with the new judge, and “in general he’s in favor of the notion of decriminalization.”
New Municipal Judge James McDonald was not present for the work session, and Schwiesow said it was not appropriate for him to be involved in setting the policy that would govern his court.
Caption: Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman, center, makes a point during a work session regarding municipal court on Wednesday. Clockwise from left are Councilors David Broyles and Jan Vigil (not visible are Councilmen Charles Griego and Michael Carson), Alamosa Police Captain Ken Anderson, Mayor Coleman, Councilors Liz Thomas Hensley and Kristina Daniel, City Clerk/Municipal Court Clerk Holly Martinez, City Attorney Erich Schwiesow and City Manager Heather Brooks. Courier photo by Ruth Heide.