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Durango prosecutor seeks to reduce time it takes to resolve criminal cases

Data dashboard allows public to view local judicial trends
Christian Champagne, district attorney for Colorado’s 6th Judicial District, talks Sept. 9 at the La Plata County Courthouse about the newly launched data dashboard that provides insight into demographics, prison sentences, case lengths, and case types and outcomes. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

COVID-19 threw a wrench into La Plata County’s criminal justice process, delaying cases by months or even years. But the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Durango is outperforming other Colorado offices when it comes to the average length of time it takes to adjudicate cases, according to new data now publicly available.

The office’s criminal justice data dashboard launched on Sept. 9 and offers insight into the people who pass in and out of the local criminal justice system, which includes La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan counties. It provides hyperlocal insight into demographics, prison sentences, case lengths, and case types and outcomes using years of data.

District Attorney Christian Champagne has spoken before about racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system, and some of those issues can be seen using the data dashboard. For example, Hispanics and Native Americans are being jailed during pretrial periods and incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts.

But something else that bothers the district attorney is the amount of time it takes for a case to be resolved, he said.

Average and median case lengths

  • 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office: Average of 246 days to case resolution; median of 188 days.
  • 1st Judicial District Attorney’s Office: Average of 255 days to case resolution; median of 169 days.
  • Denver Judicial District Attorney’s Office: Average of 320 days to case resolution; median of 232 days.
  • 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office: Average of 265 days to case resolution; median of 212 days.
  • 7th Judicial District Attorney’s Office: Average of 294 days to case resolution; median of 263 days.
  • 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office: Average of 298 days to case resolution; median of 194 days.
  • 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office: Average of 388 days to case resolution; median of 286 days.
  • Boulder Judicial District Attorney’s Office: Average of 274 days to case resolution; median of 195.

“COVID, I think, had an effect whereby everything sort of stopped,” he said. “Everybody sort of gave each other some grace because it was very difficult to resolve cases. And things just kind of dragged out more.”

According to stats from the data dashboard, in the second quarter of 2018 the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office managed to hit the American Bar Association’s time standard for (median) felony case length of 120 days from disposition to resolution. But as of the second quarter of 2022, the median case length is 188 days.

“That, to me, is something we really need to work on,” Champagne said.

Of the eight district attorney’s offices where the data dashboard launched, La Plata County leads the way in shortest average case lengths. The District Attorney’s Office is also only second to Colorado’s 1st Judicial District in terms of median case lengths.

Quicker case times reduce recidivism

What is the benefit to completing cases more quickly? Champagne recalled the old phrase, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

The sooner someone faces consequences for the crime they commit, the more of an impact those consequences have at preventing that person from committing future crimes, he said.

“When time goes by and you’re allowed to, not avoid but delay, the consequences of your behavior, it becomes easier to sort of fall into a belief that what you did wasn’t wrong, what you did wasn’t bad, what you did can be understood or excused,” he said.

He used the example of a speeding ticket. When someone is caught speeding, pulled over and issued a ticket, he or she will generally avoid speeding, at least for a while, because the consequences are felt right away.

But if someone is speeding, runs a red light and receives a ticket in the mail six months later, he or she might pay the fine, but in the meantime he or she might still be speeding and running red lights. And that behavior might not be deterred even after the ticket is received.

“When it happens quickly like that, it’s such a visceral thing,” he said.

Assistant District Attorney Sean Murray said in an email to The Durango Herald that “the longer cases languish, the less effective efforts will be at reducing crime in our community.”

He said one of the office’s main goals is to reduce recidivism, and swift resolution of cases aids in that endeavor.

Other impacts on case lengths

But there are other factors contributing to longer case times, namely inadequate funding and fewer prosecutors in the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, Murray said.

“The District Attorney’s Office has lost 18 prosecutors in a 10-attorney office in the 5½ years that I have worked here,” he said.

The cost of living in Durango and La Plata County has impacted the office’s ability to retain prosecutors, he said, much like it has hurt school districts, Durango Police Department, Durango Fire Protection District, health professionals and other occupations.

Murray said turnover hurts institutional knowledge, which causes “significant instability” in handling cases in a timely manner.

Times were so tough for one prosecutor that he resorted to living out of his car; he left for a higher-paying job in the Denver metro area and now has a home, he said.

Murray said the state Legislature should “invest in the safety of our communities by providing proper funding to rural district attorney’s offices.”

“We are answering a calling to serve community safety and justice, but we need sufficient financing to function and achieve our (objective),” he said.

He said the new data dashboard will be “paramount” in informing the District Attorney’s Office of where it needs to improve and focus efforts on cases that pose the highest risk to the community.

More data

Champagne said the District Attorney’s Office is relatively steady from year to year in the number of felony cases it pursues, about 20% of total cases. The office filed 608 felony cases in 2021, 614 in 2020 and 614 again in 2019.

Since 2017, the District Attorney’s Office has filed an average of 635 felony cases; an average of 56% of those cases resulted in felony pleas, while deferred judgments and dismissed cases made up the bulk of other cases at 19% and 12.5%, respectively, according to the data dashboard.

“What it’s telling me is that we’re treating those felony-level cases seriously and we’re making sure that those cases are getting filed and they’re getting addressed,” he said.

Cases largely consist of low-level misdemeanors and traffic offenses. The District Attorney’s Office is trying to find ways to divert those cases out of the criminal justice system so that high-level offenses can receive the proper attention from prosecutors, he said.

“We want to get these low-risk, low-needs offenders out of the court system so they’re not being over-supervised, they’re not being over-punished,” Champagne said. “Instead, they’re getting what they need, which is a fair outcome. But it doesn’t need to be a major sentence.”

Since 2017, the percentage of misdemeanor cases resulting in probation and jail time have fallen while fines and community service sentences have increased, according to dashboard data.

The dashboard isn’t the only new feature on the district attorney’s website, Champagne said. The website now includes victim and witness resources, law enforcement credibility disclosures and reports of officer-involved shootings, as well as resources for defendants and the general public that explain the criminal justice system’s functions and processes.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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