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Candidate for 6th Judicial District DA says more programs needed for low-level offenders

Improved communication between prosecutors’ offices would help keep serious criminals off streets, says Jason Eley
Jason Eley, assistant district attorney in Montezuma County, is running to become the next district attorney in the 6th Judicial District. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Jason Eley unveiled his vision to help improve the criminal justice system across three Southwest Colorado counties in his bid to become the 6th Judicial District’s next district attorney.

Eley is running for the position, which is up for election in 2024, to replace Christian Champagne, whose term expires right after. The 6th Judicial District spans across La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan counties.

Eley said he wants to bring DUI court back to the 6th Judicial District, improve communication and collaboration between regional districts – including New Mexico’s 11th Judicial District – and take steps to improve morale in the district attorney’s office in Durango.

His legal career started in a prosecutor’s office after he finished his education at Vermont Law School, but he’s also seen the other side of criminal justice.

He said he spent the last 10 years working as a defense attorney alongside Christian Hatfield, who was appointed by the governor’s office in April to serve as the 22nd Judicial District’s district attorney.

The governor’s office first offered Eley the appointment, but Eley said he declined and recommended his partner in law, Hatfield, because he wants the 6th Judicial District job, he said.

Eley said he would be hands-on, a leader and role model for employees and attorneys in the district attorney’s office, who are struggling with low morale.

“I don’t think they get the services and assistance they really need,” he said.

He said he would implement a “smart on crime” approach that would dedicate resources to serious, violent crimes and establish programs such as DUI court to help low-level offenders address their issues and prevent recidivism.

DUI court in Cortez is successful, and it would operate similarly in the 6th Judicial District, he said. The district used to have DUI court, but that went away some time ago. Bringing it back would entail applying for grants and potentially using funds from the state’s opioid settlement, which have yet to be allocated.

“I’d like to see more focus on repeat DUI offenders and programs that help someone who might have made one mistake, but make sure that DUIs are addressed more than they are currently,” he said.

A dedicated DUI court would save lives and keep people out of the criminal justice system in the long run, Eley said.

“It gives people ownership in their problems and helps with their decision-making in dealing with their addiction,” he said.

Eley approaches the subject of alcoholism and DUIs with empathy. He said the general population views alcoholism as something a person can easily deal with. But for some people, alcohol is as addictive as heroin.

“They just can’t stop. If you can help someone deal with a situation like that, I think that’s important. Especially if they’re driving as well,” he said. “It’s a disease. But there aren’t too many diseases you can get in trouble for having.”

An alcoholic has to ensure he or she doesn’t have access to a car, he said. And it’s their responsibility to know that, he said.

DUI court can help with that. The 6th Judicial District has a drug court, but it’s focused on felony offenders. He said he’d like to see more programs available for low-level offenders who just need help.

Playing the part of both prosecutor and defense attorney was eye-opening because he got to see how people can change, he said. If one spends all their time prosecuting people, they don’t get that other perspective.

Fresh out of law school, he was out to change the world. That meant every charge had to be pursued and prosecuted.

“There wasn’t as much empathy,” he said. “By the time I was done at the prosecutor’s office, I understood more how people interact with criminal justice.”

Eley said people caught up in the criminal justice system are just that: People.

Oftentimes, they are people who are having their worst day. He said people need to be held responsible for crimes they commit, but nonetheless they still need to be treated like people.

“Everybody’s in a different situation and circumstance,” he said. “The best defense attorneys look at a problem and come up with a solution.”

Eley said judges appreciate when defense attorneys and prosecutors are able to work together toward a solution for someone facing charges, whether it be drug rehabilitation, another program or incarceration.

“As a defense attorney, you can see how people can change. If you’re just on one side (the prosecution), you don’t really see that change in people,” he said.

Only a small number of offenders really need to remain in prison, he said, adding it’s important to focus on helping those who can be helped.

For serious offenders, Eley said more collaboration with surrounding judicial districts could go a long way toward keeping them off the streets. If someone gets picked up in La Plata County on high-level drug charges, prosecutors need to know if he or she has other high-level offenses in Montezuma County.

“You might have someone that distributes a large amount of drugs in Farmington, Cortez and here. They might be arrested in different places and the different prosecutors don’t really cooperate and talk about them,” he said. “But those drugs circulate in the same region. If you talked to other agencies and communicate more, you can help keep at least some of the drugs off the street.”

Eley said he and his wife have lived and worked in Durango for the last 10 years. He followed Hatfield to Cortez two months ago to serve as the assistant district attorney there while Hatfield settles in.

They have two children who go to St. Columba School and are in the soccer program there. He said his family is well-rooted in the community.

“That’s part of the reason why I want to be district attorney. Durango’s such a great place and there’s going to be a turnover at the district attorney’s office with Mr. Champagne (being) term-limited,” he said. “I just want to be part of making sure Durango stays a safe and a wonderful place to live and make sure my kids, my family and my friends continue to live in a safe place.”

Deputy Editor Matt Hollinshead contributed to this report.


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