Kelly makes the case for an adequately staffed, funded district attorney’s office

ALAMOSA – Twelfth Judicial District Attorney Anne Kelly made a budget request to the San Luis Valley Board of County Commissioners on Monday, citing inadequate funding as contributing to past failures and requesting an amount that, while large, is needed to ensure an adequately staffed and functioning DA's office in the valley.

For months, the District Attorney’s office has been described as being “in crisis” with the bulk of the blame placed on former district attorney Alonzo Payne. When Kelly addressed the SLV Board of Commissioners during its meeting, she repeated the statement — the DA’s office is in a state of crisis – and she acknowledged the significant role Payne played in the office having “failed” and being “in a state of disaster.”

But Kelly dove deeper into the problem, making the case that the problem began long before Payne took office. Kelly opened her remarks by quoting Judge and former DA Crista Newmyer-Olsen who, when making a budget request of the commissioners in 2017, predicted that if the DA’s office continues to be underfunded, “something will eventually give.”

“Well, that levy has broken,” Kelly said. “It would be easy to say, ‘well, that guy is gone so everything should be fun.  Alonzo Payne did a lot of terrible things but this office has been on life support for years…and he finally shone a very clear light on this underfunded, understaffed and failing district attorney’s office.”

Kelly touched on the impact a failing DA’s office has had on the valley — familiar topics that have been covered in city council meetings and news reports. She also provided specifics about the backlog of cases that have been “languishing” and in need of prosecution and significant contact with victims.  

Alamosa currently has 89 serious cases awaiting prosecution, including 13 domestic violence, three homicides, six felony assaults and two cases of child abuse.

Conejos County has 50 cases, including one homicide, 11 domestic violence, five sexual assault and six felony assault cases.

Costilla County has 18 cases, including four domestic violence, three sexual assaults, two possible homicides, two weapons cases, one child abuse and one elder neglect.

Rio Grande has 84 cases, including 13 domestic violence, five assaults, seven sexual assaults.

Saguache County has 39 cases, including five assaults, seven sexual assaults and 13 cases of domestic violence.

Totaled, that’s a backlog 280 serious felony cases that are just now being prosecuted and does not take include those cases that are filed on an ongoing basis.

Kelly sees a causative relationship between the lack of law enforcement, a lack of trust and an increase in violence. She also claims the opposite is true.

“With fair enforcement and prosecution, trust and safety improve,” she said.

Kelly argued that improper plea deals or dismissal of charges is not just a matter of incompetence but can also be correlated to an office that simply does not have the resources to do the job at the level that is needed to ensure fair and effective prosecution.

The public needs to know that the district attorney’s office is going to prosecute cases, but the DA’s office needs to have the resources to do that, she said.

After making the case for the need to fund the DA’s office at a functional level, Kelly brought up Colorado Revised Statutes and ethical responsibilities as defined by the American Bar Association.

According to C.R.S. 24-82-204, The various counties in the judicial district will pay for “the necessary expenses of maintaining an office.” This is not discretionary spending, she said.

According to the ABA, prosecutors should not carry a workload that “interferes with quality representation, endangers the fairness, accuracy or timely disposition of charges.” A workload that makes those things impossible is unethical, the ABA says.

According to the ABA, one felony prosecutor should not have a caseload more than 150 cases. One misdemeanor prosecutor should not have more than 300 cases.

In the 12th Judicial District in 2019, a time that was pre-pandemic and more likely to reflect the actual caseload in “normal” years, one felony prosecutor had a caseload of 315 cases. That’s more than twice the maximum the ABA recommends a felony prosecutor.  

In 2021, one felony prosecutor had a caseload of 369 cases. That’s a caseload that the ABA defines as clearly being unethical.

In her budget request, Kelly said she is not asking for funding to accommodate a felony attorney having a caseload of 150. In a display of being “reasonable,” she’s asking for the budget to accommodate nine attorneys, plus herself, who would have a caseload of 180-200 cases each.

To drive home the point, Kelly provided comparative data between the 12th district and the sixth and 14th districts.

In 2019, the sixth district (with a population of 77,000 and comprised of Archuleta, San Juan and La Plata) had 744 felony cases. Their 2021 budget was $2.6 million.

Also in 2019, the 14th district (with a population 54,000 and comprised of Grand, Moffatt and Routt) had 588 felony cases. Their 2021 budget was $3.2 million.

In 2019, the 12th district (with a population of 46,000 comprised of the six counties in the valley) had 932. In 2021, the 12th district’s budget was $976,685. The information was all provided to the Valley Courier by Kelly.

Other data Kelly provided shows the breakdown in a different way. In 2019, the sixth district averaged 2.6 homicides per year compared to the 12th that averaged 12.6. Yet, the sixth was budgeted at a rate that was more than double the 12th.

For 2022, the district attorney’s office requested $1.6 million but, due to a perception of “incompetence” by two county commissioners, it received $956,514.

The budget request for 2023 from DA Kelly’s office is a total of $2.3 million, which is an increase of $700,000 over the 2022 budget request and is enough to have nine prosecutors plus Kelly as well as an additional investigator and two paralegals — which Kelly said is necessary in the prosecution of cases.

Even with one felony prosecutor taking on a caseload of 180–200 cases, versus the 150 recommended by the ABA, Kelly is convinced that the office would be adequately staffed and funded to clear up the backlog of cases, get the 12th district back on its feet and prosecuting fairly and judiciously and, over time, trust would eventually be restored.,

Kelly’s opening remarks were more like a closing argument to a jury.

“I know I can do the job but I can’t do it without funding,” Kelly said. “This is the time we need to say that community safety, community trust, respect for victims and a sense of ownership of our criminal justice system has to happen now. This is the only time in history where this has happened in this valley and this is the time to reprioritize how we’re spending our money to make sure justice comes to the valley.

“The state is watching us to see what we will do.”


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