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As Colorado rethinks how criminal justice policy is made, hopes and fears emerge


As Colorado rethinks how criminal justice policy is made, hopes and fears emerge

Oct 19, 2023 | 5:00 am ET
By Lindsey Toomer
As Colorado rethinks how criminal justice policy is made, hopes and fears emerge
(Oliver Helbig/Getty Images)

An executive order from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis established a working group to come up with a new entity to replace the now defunct Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, and those working across criminal justice have mixed feelings about the governor’s approach. 

The executive order Polis released Oct. 9 establishes the Working Group on Transforming Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which a news release says will “study evidence-based practices, conduct significant stakeholder outreach, and develop a recommendation on the formation of the future entity or entities by March 1, 2024.”

“This executive order brings together experts to help provide a path for the important work ahead and ensure that criminal and juvenile justice-related policies work to make Colorado safer and improve outcomes across the system,” Polis said in a statement. “This action includes a wide range of stakeholders and our administration looks forward to working with them and the legislature on data-driven ideas from across the spectrum on this important issue.”

The Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice advised the Legislature on criminal justice policy for 15 years, but the Legislature decided to sunset the commission this year. Some lawmakers said the commission had served its purpose, while others protested that the CCJJ didn’t meaningfully include people with lived experiences in the criminal justice system. 

Tom Raynes, executive director of Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, will serve as a co-chair of the working group alongside a representative from the State Public Defender’s office. While he was against dissolving the CCJJ — and served as a long-time member — he is excited for the opportunity to “continue the concept of a multi-disciplinary group of experts that helps inform folks who work on criminal justice policy,” he said. 

“I think there’s a space here for success that allows us to maybe examine what was positive with the CCJJ, and also identify perhaps some of the shortcomings and problems that people have with it and correct those,” Raynes told Newsline.

The group can serve as a space where “all parties who have something to say about criminal justice policy have a place to be heard,” he said.

Getting started, Raynes said he hopes the group will work to determine priority issues it wants to guide its recommendations for a future entity. Sentencing reform, reentry and juvenile justice issues are top of mind for him, though he expects other group members will suggest their own priorities.

A common criticism of the CCJJ’s work toward the end of the commission’s existence was that a separation of adult and juvenile justice issues was needed, and Raynes expects this will come up as a point of discussion, he said.

What is public safety?

State Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat, intends to serve on the working group in his role as chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Even before the bill that disbanded the CCJJ, it became clear that discussions on the future of the commission would be necessary “given differences of opinion and even distrust that had grown up around it,” he said.

To Weissman, having a legislative perspective in the working group is important, since lawmaking is the responsibility of the legislative branch. He said he hopes to voice concerns he’s heard stakeholders from across the criminal legal system express about the CCJJ over the years. 

“When we talk about public safety, we have to acknowledge that while we all want public safety, it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing in every part of the state or to every community you ask,” Weissman said in an email to Newsline. “For example I represent a very diverse district where frankly police-community trust is frayed for a lot of people.  We have to deeply understand why that is, and address it seriously.”

Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, served on multiple task forces created by the CCJJ. She ultimately resigned from a sentencing task force she served on, she said, because she didn’t like that a reentry task force was “dominated by people” who didn’t have expertise directly working with reentry, which refers to the transition by a person who is incarcerated back into the community.

In reimagining the CCJJ, Donner hopes to see people involved who are on the ground and close to the relevant problems, she said. The perspective that prosecutors and people in law enforcement provide is valuable, but they don’t necessarily have experience helping a formerly incarcerated person get a job, she noted.

As Colorado rethinks how criminal justice policy is made, hopes and fears emerge
Gov. Jared Polis delivers the 2023 State of the State address to a joint session of the Colorado Legislature in the House chamber at the Capitol on Jan. 17, 2023, in Denver. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post, Pool)

The governor’s past and current involvement

Polis had always kept a close eye on the CCJJ, in contrast to his predecessors. In Donner’s opinion, Polis’ heavy involvement undermined CCJJ’s credibility and functionality, since it’s the Legislature’s role to make policy. The executive branch doesn’t need to be uninvolved in what comes next, but it’s “problematic” that the “locus of power” for the commission remains within the executive branch, Donner said.

Raynes, on the other hand, said he welcomed a governor who engaged with the process and that Polis paying attention to the CCJJ showed he had great interest in criminal justice policy. But, moving forward, he thinks independence for the working group is key.

“To address that concern, because I know some folks have that, I think it’s critical that this group of 17 folks maintain independence from any type of agenda from any direction,” Raynes said. “Whether it be the governor or particular legislators or particular special interest groups, we should address this all from ground zero.”

Unlike prior governors, Gov. Polis has utilized CCJJ sort of in a manipulative way, a weaponizing way, and has very much interfered with the CCJJ process.

– Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition

Working group membership will include a county human services representative; a victim advocate; a person who is a victim of crime; a person who is a former offender; a representative in the field of behavioral health or mental health, or a substance use disorder treatment provider; a representative of law enforcement; a person with criminal defense experience; and an academic specializing in matters related to criminal justice. 

The governor also invited the chairs and ranking members of Colorado’s House and Senate Judiciary Committees, the attorney general or a designee, as well as leaders of the state Department of Public Safety and the Department of Corrections. 

Donner said the governor’s “intention to dominate this process” by starting a new working group is part of the problem, as this work should be centered around the branch responsible for developing public policy. 

“Unlike prior governors, Gov. Polis has utilized CCJJ sort of in a manipulative way, a weaponizing way, and has very much interfered with the CCJJ process,” Donner said. “The composition of the CCJJ, it’s right now very much an executive branch-dominated entity, and that’s been problematic for a number of reasons.” 

For example, Donner cited a bill introduced by former Democratic state. Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez intended to reduce involvement in the justice system for young children. Polis asked the CCJJ to vote to oppose the bill. The measure did not stem from the CCJJ, yet the governor sought the commission’s involvement.

“That had never been done in the history of CCJJ,” Donner said. “The CCJJ has been very clear that it only takes positions on bills that come through its process and recommendations. And that caused a lot of consternation within CCJJ, the membership, from what I’ve heard.” 

Donner said the governor’s opposition to the bill wasn’t the problem, rather his attempt to get the CCJJ involved was “highly inappropriate.” She said a large portion of the voting members on the CCJJ were executive branch members who are appointed by the governor. 

Weissman said a formal executive order is just one way to approach reimagining the CCJJ. But he said he ultimately cares more about the substance than the process. 

“I want to acknowledge that a number of organizations would have preferred a less formal way of going about this, without an EO,” Weissman said. “As members of the working group get going, I hope we are all open-minded about what future structures for evaluating criminal justice policy might look like.” 

Potential for an improved future

Whatever the working group does recommend to the Legislature, Donner said she also hopes the new body isn’t stacked with people who work in the systems — it needs people in the community who are impacted by policy. 

“We’re going to participate in the working group to the extent that we can, to try and have a better product,” Donner said. “It’s worthwhile to have something, but it needs to look considerably different than the CCJJ. I think we’ve learned enough to know that.”

Weissman said that while many people had reasonable concerns with the CCJJ, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from the commission’s accomplishments. One idea he’s heard is working in short-term, issue specific groups. 

Raynes said he thinks the start of the working group is an exciting moment for those who care about criminal justice policy in Colorado. 

“Having been part of the CCJJ, I think it was a great experience, but I think this holds the possibility of even more significant outcomes moving forward,” Raynes said. “This group’s going to focus on what structural groups should look like, not specific policies for this session. But there’s just a tremendous opportunity here to restructure an entity or entities to make sure everybody feels included in the policy making.”