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Durango doubles-down on opposition to jail reform bill

Councilors split, with no further discussion planned
The former Durango City Council reaffirmed its opposition to a state jail reform bill Tuesday by majority vote. And the current council, with two new members, has scheduled no further discussion.

Durango city councilors split this week over whether to uphold their opposition to a state jail reform bill that would limit when police can make arrests.

Senate Bill 21-062 proposes a shift in Colorado’s arrest rules, telling officers to use summons instead of immediate arrests for some offenses. Its goal is to depopulate jails and change cash bail regulations, but it has also sparked an intense debate about criminal justice reform in the state.

In one of its last acts Tuesday, the former Durango City Council doubled-down on its opposition to SB 21-062. Further discussion appears to have been shelved with no plans to revisit the matter.

“It’s super unorthodox for us to be revisiting something that we took a 4-1 vote on with all of the information available to us at the time,” said former Councilor Chris Bettin during his last meeting Tuesday.

The new City Council, with two new additions after the April elections, had not directed city staff members to place the topic on the agenda again as of Thursday, said City Manager José Madrigal.

The council first considered the bill April 8 at the request of Police Chief Bob Brammer. At the time, most councilors had only reviewed opposition statements from state and local organizations, including the Durango Police Department. They voted 4-1 in favor of opposing the bill and sent a letter to the Legislature.

Councilor Barbara Noseworthy requested a second discussion Tuesday, saying that both sides of the issue should be considered. Other municipalities in Colorado, such as Boulder, reversed course after hearing supporting arguments, and Durango had the option to rescind its letter based on new information, she said.

The bill prohibits officers from arresting a person based solely on the alleged commission of a traffic offense, petty offense, municipal offense, misdemeanor offense, a class 4, 5 or 6 felony, or a level 3 or 4 drug felony.

Instead, officers would issue a summons or complaint. Exceptions can be made for flight risks, safety threats and statutory requirements. The bill is still being considered by the Colorado Legislature.

The city was criticized during public comment Tuesday for basing its stance solely on statements in opposition to the measure.

“The reason people are here is because there was no public comment ... and no consideration of the expertise of your law enforcement leaders who understand that this bill will build better, safer communities,” said Helen Griffiths, public policy strategist for the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union, during public comment at Tuesday’s meeting.

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith also supports the bill.

Opponents cite safety concerns, saying similar restrictions were enacted at the start of the pandemic, but crime still increased both statewide and in Durango.

Brammer has called the bill “concerning.” Although the department wants to see criminal justice reform, this specific bill is not the right tool, he said.

All 10 people who spoke about the bill during Tuesday’s public comment period supported it. About half of the supporters identified themselves as Front Range residents or affiliated with groups that support the bill.

They said the bill will help address Colorado’s overpopulated jails by releasing people before their trial. They say the majority of people in jail have not been convicted and are only jailed because they cannot afford to pay bail.

“It’s really a bill about protecting individual liberty for all,” said Paul DeBell, a Durango resident and Fort Lewis College professor. “When community members are arrested for nonviolent crimes and then incarcerated – because like most people in the United States today they do not have hundreds or thousands of dollars to post bond – they have lost their liberty.”

Two city councilors, Melissa Youssef and Noseworthy, changed their position on the bill to neutral during this week’s meeting. Youssef previously voted in favor of opposing the bill, while Noseworthy voted against taking an opposition stance.

The remaining councilors, Kim Baxter, Chris Bettin and Dean Brookie, voted 3-2 to uphold the city’s previous opposition statement. They left it up to the current council for any further discussion.

“It’s not opposition to this bill in its totality,” said Brookie, whose term ended Tuesday. “It was opposition to the bill and its parts, which don’t come together in a format that’s best for Durango, in my opinion.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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