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New La Plata County judge places emphasis on rehabilitation, not prison

Some in criminal justice world fear new style increases risk to community
La Plata County Judge Anne Woods promised to bring a progressive approach to the bench, favoring rehabilitative sentences over punitive ones.

A new La Plata County judge’s progressive approach to the bench has raised the question of whether placing a stronger emphasis on rehabilitation sentences over punitive ones is a shift toward real criminal justice reform or a potential increase in risk to the community.

La Plata County Court Judge Anne Woods was appointed this fall by Gov. Jared Polis to fill the vacancy left by outgoing Judge Dondi Osborne, and from the outset, Woods made clear she wanted to emphasize restorative justice.

Woods, 33, has since made it a priority to keep people out of jail, and instead issue bond terms or sentences that focus heavily on rehabilitation in an effort to address what she says are the root causes of crime.

“I’m doing what I said I was going to do,” Woods said this week in an interview with The Durango Herald. “I generally do emphasize rehabilitation over punishment because I believe rehabilitation is better for the community in the long term.”

Now five months in, Woods’ judicial philosophy has drawn criticism from some local prosecutors and victim advocates who say her decisions tend to favor the offender and not the victim or the overall safety of the community.

Sixth Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne said judges make difficult choices, and they must consider not only the impacts their decisions have on the defendants, but also on the victims of crime and the whole community.

“Our job is to give a voice to the victims of crime and to the concerns of the community,” he said. “While we may not always agree on how individual cases should be handled, we respect judges’ role and the tough choices they have to make.”

The situation in La Plata County is a microcosm for a larger, nationwide effort to reform a criminal justice system that some critics say is expensive, leads to mass incarceration and disproportionately affects minorities.

Filling a vacancy

In March, just three years after she was appointed to the position by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, Osborne announced her plans to resign, which kicked off the search for her replacement.

In Colorado, each judicial district has a “nominating commission” made up of members of the public, some involved in law, some not, who make recommendations to the governor, who has the ultimate say.

In the 6th Judicial District (which covers Archuleta, La Plata and San Juan counties), the nominating commission has seven members, two of whom are practicing defense attorneys and one who is a public defender.

John Wright, a non-attorney who represents San Juan County, said the commission selected three nominations to submit to Polis. Wright, however, said the internal discussions among the commission are confidential.

“After that, it’s out of our hands as a nominating commission,” he said.

The commission recommended Woods, local defense attorney Graham Smith (who ultimately withdrew from consideration) and Reid Stewart, 48, who has practiced law nearly 20 years and worked at the District Attorney’s Office since 2009.

“We were not necessarily unanimous on our selections, but we came to an agreement to move forward those three names,” said Jim Cross, a former Fort Lewis College professor and member of the commission.

Conor Cahill, spokesman for the Governor’s Office, said Polis has 15 days after receiving the names from the nominating commission to appoint a candidate to the bench.

“In making that decision, the governor and the Governor’s Office of Legal Counsel (headed by Jacki Cooper Melmed) conduct due diligence, including speaking with attorneys and judges about the candidates and interviewing the candidates,” he said.

Melmed, for her part, when speaking at the Colorado Women’s Bar Association’s “Storming the Bench” event to encourage more women to apply for judge vacancies, said Polis was committed to diversity in the courts, according to a March report in Law Week Colorado.

At the time, Polis had made 39 judicial appointments in 13 months in office, with 60% of them women, Melmed said.

La Plata County Judge Anne Woods’ progressive approach on the bench has concerned some in the local criminal justice community who say her decisions and sentences tend to favor offenders over victims and community safety.

On Sept. 11, Polis announced he selected Woods. At the time, Woods, whose law career spanned just five years as a public defender, was surprised herself, yet confident and up for the task.

Woods had served as a senior deputy public defender for the state of Colorado since 2015. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University in 2009 and a law degree from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law in 2015.

“That’s why I was absolutely shocked and floored when I was appointed by the governor,” she said at the time. “But I think my courtroom experience has put me in a unique position where I have those skills.”

Ingrid Alt, a local defense attorney who was on the nominating commission, was less surprised about Woods’ nomination.

“It’s my understanding Polis wants more diversity and a broader thinking with criminal justice,” she said.

Forming a philosophy

Woods describes her judicial philosophy as “progressive.”

“I know it’s a buzzword,” she said. “But I don’t know another way to describe it.”

Woods said she has a background in public service and volunteer work, and when she went to law school, she was ultimately drawn to the idea of serving as a public defender.

“You start to understand people more, and the root cause of things,” she said.

While there are outright bad people in the world, Woods said most people are good, and those who commit a crime usually have underlying reasons, such as drug addiction, mental health issues or past trauma.

That’s no excuse for committing a crime, Woods said, but if a person who runs into the law can successfully be rehabilitated, every attempt should be made to help that person heal so they don’t get perennially trapped in the criminal justice system.

“Punitive sentences (such as jail) are short term,” she said. “It makes everyone feel better that this person is locked up, but if we don’t address the root problems for their behavior, they’re going to end up hurting more people later on.”

That sentiment is increasingly popular in the field of criminal justice reform.

Tristan Gorman, a lobbyist for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, a criminal defense advocacy group, said for too long, the criminal justice system has relied on punitive punishments, which has not reduced crime or recidivism.

“Prevention is a lot more effective at protecting community safety rather than the revolving door of a prison,” he said. “What we have been doing for decades isn’t working. It isn’t improving public safety. It’s harming communities.”

In practice, it means Woods tends to issue personal recognizance bonds, which allow people to be out of custody at no cost as long as they follow court conditions and show up to hearings, or low monetary bonds before trial.

And, when there’s discretion for the judge to decide between jail time or supervised probation that includes treatment and rehabilitation services, Woods will likely choose the latter.

“People mistake a rehabilitation sentence for the easy way out, when in reality, it’s working through your issues, which, for a lot of people, is harder than jail,” Woods said.

Risk to victims, community?

But Woods’ progressive approach has caused tensions to flare in the courtroom, especially when prosecutors believe she is not using case-by-case discretion for suspects who could be dangerous if released.

At a court hearing in November to discuss bond conditions for Cody Stowe, accused of second-degree assault after allegedly breaking a woman’s cheekbone and knocking her unconscious, the District Attorney’s Office asked for a $25,000 bond.

Woods, however, said her philosophy is that monetary bonds don’t guarantee people stick around, and high bail amounts should not be used as a means of keeping someone in custody.

Under the progressive theory, high bond amounts also disproportionately affect the poor.

The District Attorney’s Office, in response, argued Stowe was on parole for a similar crime for assault when he attacked the woman. And, prosecutors said the female victim in the case had to shoot Stowe to stop the attack and save her life.

Woods maintained people accused of crimes are not convicted and have a right to a reasonable bail amount.

“That doesn’t make any sense, your honor,” Assistant District Attorney David Ottman said at the hearing. “Respectfully, that’s not – this is – community safety is important. And I apologize if I am coming off to the court as exasperated or – I don’t know what else to do.

“I’m not – the People are not making its point apparently to the court, and I am at my wits’ end as to what – what evidence I can ever present to this court in order to find that somebody is such a danger that they need a high enough bond they have to stay in jail.

“We don’t want to see somebody else have a broken bone. We don’t want to see anybody else shot and killed because of Mr. Stowe’s demonstrated violent actions that put him in the Department of Corrections. We don’t want that.”

Woods issued a $5,000 bail.

“I’m done explaining myself,” Woods said. “But, you know, this court believes that people deserve a chance to show they don’t present a risk to the community and can comply with court orders.”

In another case in October, Christopher Clark, accused of sexual assault and domestic violence, violated a protection order by contacting the female victim. The District Attorney’s Office, again, requested a high bail to keep Clark in custody.

“I don’t care if he’s accused of dismembering somebody and cutting off their – I mean ... the bond statutes are very clear that there’s a presumption of release,” Woods said. “He’s entitled to bail. He’s presumed innocent.”

Clark, regardless, remained in custody on a $100,000 bail from the original offense.

“I don’t feel like I’m really having an opportunity to be heard here,” said Deputy District Attorney William Baird.

Do the crime, pay the time?

In perhaps one of the most high-profile cases that turned contentious, Woods oversaw the sentencing proceedings for Preston Pitcher, who was accused of sexually molesting at least five young adults he mentored through a church program.

After pleading guilty and signing a plea agreement, Pitcher faced up to 60 days in jail and up to four years’ probation. In January, Woods, having the discretion to choose, issued no jail time, instead ordering four years’ probation.

The decision temporarily sent the court into chaos.

“What if it was your son that was molested or sexually abused?” one of the victim’s parents said, interrupting Woods during sentencing. “What would you do?”

Victims in the case, too, pleaded with Woods to impose jail time, pointing out that Pitcher groomed them from an early age and waited until they turned 18 years old before he made sexual advances to avoid more serious offenses.

“These are actions of an extremely talented pedophile that manipulated countless children for years,” one victim said. “He can’t be punished for abusing children, even though he spent the last decade doing exactly that.”

Woods was adamant that four years of probation are more severe than jail, limiting freedoms and requiring intense supervision. She said treatment and getting Pitcher help would better serve the community than locking him up.

“I understand it might feel better if he’s locked up,” Woods said at the hearing. “But I have a different analysis of what constitutes punishment. ... The long-term goal is to heal (Pitcher) and victims in the community.”

Maura Demko, executive director of the Sexual Assault Services Organization, said Woods rationalized the offender’s behavior, talking about how severe a probationary period would be, and in doing so, ignored the victims.

“Judge Woods ... downplayed all of the victim-impact statements that were made in the courtroom,” she said. “It was very challenging listening to her in that sentencing hearing.”

Demko said those types of decisions make it difficult for other victims to come forward and tell authorities about abuse they suffered, which requires them to relive trauma again and again.

“It creates barriers for victims in coming forward because they don’t feel they’ll be supported through the criminal justice system, which is supposed to be fair,” she said.

In another high-profile case, Woods issued a personal recognizance bond to Amanda Lembach, who was arrested in October on suspicion of setting a barn on fire northwest of Bayfield. The District Attorney’s Office had asked for a $50,000 bond for Lembach, who had a criminal history and known mental health issues.

About a week after being released, Lembach allegedly retaliated against a witness and led police on a high-speed car chase. She was also charged with third-degree assault. She was then given a $100,000 bail by a different judge.

A different approach, perhaps different outcomes

While it’s easy to cherry-pick instances where bond decisions may have gone awry, those cases are by far a slim margin of Woods’ caseload, and it’s an unfair representation of her work, said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

What’s far more difficult and important is gauging the overall success of Woods’ approach, something likely that would take a couple of years and a large sample size of cases to come to any conclusions, Donner said.

“It’s not an easy undertaking to evaluate whether she’s right or wrong,” Donner said. “She’s only one piece of the puzzle.”

Donner said jails and prisons are not where people get sex offender treatment, so when people are incarcerated, there’s actually an increased risk the person will commit the same crime.

“It’s not about one judge keeping one person in jail,” Donner said. “It’s about how do we better approach public safety that doesn’t over-rely on the criminal justice system, but has other components in place.”

Durango Police Department Chief Bob Brammer said officers constantly deal with repeat offenders, sometimes as early as the day after their release from jail, which puts a lot of strain on his office.

But a number of factors have led to offenders making it back on the streets, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced a reduction of the local jail population.

“I know we can’t arrest our way out of this, but we’re putting laws and reforms in place without a support network, and that’s making it tough,” he said.

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said all judges need time to learn the bench. When a person is released and reoffends, he said that’s an opportunity to examine the case and see if anything should have been done differently.

“I think Judge Woods is figuring that out,” Smith said. “We need to reserve our jail for the people who need to be there ... but some of the decisions being made may come back with unintended consequences.”

La Plata County Judge Anne Woods and other criminal justice reform advocates say putting people in jail doesn’t address the root cause of crime or protect communities in the long run.
Learning the ropes

Woods, for her part, agrees becoming a judge is a constant learning process. One thing she has tried to improve, for instance, is to be extra attentive and mindful of her words during court hearings.

“I’m far from perfect,” she said. “Sometimes (you make the) wrong decision, and you learn from that and make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”

Woods said she’s aware a sentiment exists within the legal community that because she practiced as a public defender, she sides with the defense. (Her fiance is a public defender who used to practice in the 6th Judicial District and now works in the 22nd district in Cortez.)

Yet she adamantly disagrees her defense work influences her rulings.

“People are going to disagree or agree, but I always have the best intentions,” she said. “I truly want to do what I can to bring a good future to our community.”

Anne Woods was appointed this fall by Gov. Jared Polis to fill a vacancy as La Plata County Court judge. Woods, 33, had five years of experience as a public defender before taking the bench.

Christopher Mueller, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, who has been teaching law for 50 years, said judges are tasked with not keeping people in jail before they are convicted. But at the same time, judges do have discretion and some means to make it harder for people who may pose a risk to the community to be released.

“Where you come out between those choices is obviously, to some extent, an individual thing with individual judges,” he said. “They have a great deal of discretion.”

In Colorado, county court judges face retention by voters two years after they are first appointed. Then, if retained, residents vote every four years.

“If it becomes a community issue, she’ll hear about it at retention time,” Mueller said.

The Defense Bar’s Gorman, however, said Woods’ approach to the bench is what is needed for true criminal justice reform. He said despite mass incarceration in the past few decades, crime rates have not dropped.

“We can see that has not worked,” he said. “So why are we doing it? It’s time we look at a major shift, otherwise we’ll keep locking people up and paying a lot of taxpayer money to do it, and not getting good results.”

Gorman said the billions of dollars put into the state prison system should instead be invested into services that address the root causes of crime, propping people up with education, health care, mental health services, housing, etc.

“That’s the only thing that will bring crime rates down, not locking humans in cages,” he said. “What we have not seen is a willingness to fund things that prevent crime. When someone’s basic needs are met, that brings crime rates down.”

Woods, for her part, says she believes there are usually better outcomes in a court case if a person believes they’ve been treated with dignity, respect and humanity.

“I’m admittedly different than what people are used to with a judge,” she said. “There will be people who disagree with your philosophy. But I really care about the community and the people in it.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

This article has been updated to correct the cycles of voting for retention for county judges.

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