We hold cops accountable. Now how about the rest…
In the last couple years, the state of Colorado has moved to make its police departments much more accountable for their actions and more transparent in how they mete out justice.
We’ve required body cams on all officers. We’ve required public data compiled on all infractions by officers, on all use of force, and even on instances of untruthfulness. We now require officers to be held accountable if they don’t report misconduct when they see it on the job and we’ve opened them up to lawsuits for violating a suspect’s rights.
But what about the rest of the criminal justice system? Our courts, our prosecutors, our judges? Shouldn’t the entire ball of wax be held to the same standards that police are?
Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen sure thinks so. “What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander,” he said recently. He thinks the lack of accountability and transparency in the rest of the justice system is making cops’ jobs a lot harder because the criminals they arrest are being put right back out on the streets too frequently by oblivious prosecutors and judges.
“The lack of consequences and accountability for individuals who are committing crimes, these repeat and violent offenders, is why we are seeing these spikes” in crime rates, Pazen said in an editorial board meeting with The Denver Gazette this week.
Colorado’s average monthly crime rate in 2021 was 28% higher than it was a decade ago, a recent study found, and Colorado has the highest car theft rate in the country. The homicide rate in Denver in 2021 was the worst in three decades, and homicides in Colorado Springs hit a record high.
Arrests have soared as police try to keep up, Pazen said, “but there is a lack of follow through on the prosecution, adjudication, incarceration or supervision” of suspects, Pazen believes. “That’s where we need to really dig in and see what is going on.”
Clearly, our judicial system has troubles. Reporter David Migoya has been shining a spotlight on major problems in the state judicial system for well over a year.
As a direct result of Migoya’s reporting, the commission investigating corruption in our courts asked legislators to create a first-ever Office of Judicial Discipline, wholly independent of the state’s highest court, to watchdog judges and prosecutors. Such a watchdog might be a first step toward answering Pazen’s concerns.
“In our state, everything is about accountability for law enforcement,” Pazen argues.
“If you’re in Denver and you want to know what the crime looks like in your neighborhood, what the crime looks like for the last month, or the last year, or the last 10 years, you can get our open data source. You want to find out how many cops got in trouble, you can find that out every month.
“But if you want to find out what a judge is doing, good luck.
“If you want to find out which judges are giving $1 bonds, $2 bonds, or (personal recognizance) bonds without any fee to them, good luck,” said Pazen.
When Pazen recently sought data from the courts on suspects who were being released, and who was releasing them, he hit a wall. Police had to pour over records “name by name.”
Working on recent investigative stories, our reporters have found much the same. The rest of the justice system is positively opaque compared to the police.
“It’s an incredibly laborious process to get actual details about how someone has fared on supervision status (such as parole, pretrial release, or probation) before they are arrested for a homicide,” investigative editor Chris Osher told me. “Just finding who was on supervision versus not was a very labor-intensive process that required us to go check on individual case files and then request from court officials further clarification.” Osher had to pull and review more than 40 case files to get that information.
Why aren’t the courts keeping careful databases that track suspects with multiple arrests so those repeat offenses inform their decision-making better?
When it comes to judges, “at the minimum, there should be something that at least allows the public to know how effective (or ineffective) this person is on the bench,” Migoya said to me. “We vote for them and know zilch about them other than what the performance review people want us to know.”
Having just the ballpark number of times a judge is overturned on appeal would at the least be able to indicate a pattern, Migoya said. The folks deciding whether or not to retain judges don’t even have that kind of rudimentary data.
“Who holds the judge accountable when they release somebody on a (personal recognizance) bond and the suspect comes down to Cheesman Park and beats to death a 77-year-old man for exactly nothing?” asks an agitated Pazen.
“If I’m a family member and I lose a loved one to an overdose, I can’t hold the lawmaker accountable for the changes in policy that have nearly doubled the overdose deaths,” Pazen points out.
I’m guessing there is a bit of class discrimination going on here. Lawyers surely think they stand above police officers on the ladder of importance in the justice system, and so don’t require the oversight cops do. (Can you imagine what our supreme court justices would say if we asked them to wear body cams in court?) I’m betting most judges have something of a Moses-handing-down-the-tablets complex: they believe they can do no wrong.
But Pazen points out that cops, lawyers and judges are all supposed to be dedicated to the same thing.
“We lose sight of why we are here. Public safety,” he said. “People want to be safe. People will not live, work or play in a community they don’t feel safe in. This has to get fixed, this has to get fixed quickly, we have to have some forward thinking that hey, maybe we were trying to help (with police reforms) but there have been unintended consequences.
“Thirty-three people in Denver are dead as the result of the suspect being on probation, parole or under supervision,” Pazen adds. “There is a misfiring of the criminal justice system.”