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Voices: Understanding the Denver DA’s office


What do you know about your District Attorney? The Denver Justice Project sees the District Attorney as having the most influential role in the criminal justice system. The DA has power, influence, and discretion that historically has gone unmonitored, unchecked and unrecognized by the general public. Power like- will crimes be misdemeanors, felonies, or even filed at all. And this includes against law enforcement. In the past 12 years current Denver District Attorney Mitchell Morrissey has been in office he has never indicted Denver law enforcement for felony assault or homicide. Even though we have had countless murders, and excessive force cases reported to Denver Internal Affairs Bureau regarding patterns and practices of abuse by Denver police, and sheriff deputies. In 2015 the city and county of Denver settled the case of Marvin Booker who was an inmate killed by sheriff deputies while asking for his shoes before he was processed in to his cell. And Jamal Hunter another inmate who was repeatedly tortured by other inmates under instructions from deputies on duty. Between those two cases alone 9.25 million of Denver tax payer dollars were used in civil settlements, and yet none of the deputies were indicted for their actions.

The discretion of a DA’s office decides how far they want to take charges, who is eligible for victim’s assistance, who will be given the death penalty, and so much more.  These monumental decisions alter the course of people’s lives, impacting family members, loved ones, and community. Yet these important DA elections often go undetected, by the general public and sometimes even uncontested during election season. The Denver DA is the highest paid state elected official. Current Denver DA Mitchell Morrissey has been in office for 12 years, because he created a 3rd term for the position after running unopposed. This office states that it acts on behalf of the people, but people have been given little to no understanding – about its true dynamics.  Unlike other elected officials, the DA has rarely been responsive, accessible, or accountable to their constituency. The Denver Justice Project has developed a community teach in curriculum that we are facilitating across the Denver metro area. This curriculum includes our 10-point voter education tool that details these 10 focuses. (1. Mass incarceration, 2. Fighting cultural patterns and practices of violence in law enforcement, 3. Decriminalizing public health issues, 4. Transparency and openness to community input, 5. Conviction reviews, 6. Bail reform, 7. Respecting the Right to Protest, 8. Immigration, 9. Juvenile justice, 10. What organizational change needs to take place in your DA’s Office, does the office reflect the community?)

District attorneys are the primary force driving mass incarceration, and have historically used tough on crime rhetoric to influence and miseducate the general public on their decisions. A lot of the time people are criminalized for circumstances that should be viewed as public health issues and not as acts of crime. Homelessness, addiction, behavioral health, etc. They also have the ability to perpetuate, or change a cultural of violence amongst law-enforcement by using their discretion to either offer impunity or to file charges against abusive practices. When a district attorney’s office does not acknowledge abusive or homicidal practices by law-enforcement as crime they’re technically not responsible to provide or develop services to people and families who have been victimized and are now survivors of such violence.

Over 90% of cases never make it to trial because people who are being accused tend to plea out regardless of their guilt or innocence. Normally because people are literally forced to gamble they’re fate in the hands of a system that has been set up against them. Defendants who do take their cases all the way through trial and are found guilty are required to reimburse the cost of prosecuting their own trial through restitution payments. However, there is no reimbursement for the defense or defendant should they be found not guilty.

The Denver Justice Project community teach in curriculum is being used as a tool for understanding the dynamics and complexities of the Denver DA’s office–and how it can better serve the public in the future. This is in preparation for the upcoming District Attorney primaries on June 28, 2016 and the election at large in November, 2016. But more importantly this should be used as a critical assessment for why we as community need to pay attention to the District Attorney’s race in Denver, across Colorado and even across the Country.

Alex Landau,  Alexanderlandau89@gmail.com, 303-356-7800, or Ceci Rodriguez, Cecelia@sol.org, 303-587-6695

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