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Polis backs crime-prevention package amid scrutiny from Republicans, some police groups

Public safety plan includes more than $113 million in funding
Gov. Jared Polis, along with law enforcement officials, lawmakers and community members stand in front of the state Capitol on Thursday to unveil a public safety plan, which includes more than $113 million in funding toward crime-prevention measures. (Thy Vo/The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis is backing a package of bills that will tackle an array of public safety issues through early intervention strategies and support for mental health programs aimed at making Colorado’s communities safer.

The package, which seeks to bolster crime prevention measures at a community level, includes support for co-responder models, addressing public safety worker shortages, grants for organizations to address domestic violence and investments in behavioral health programs, the governor said. It also includes more funding for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to investigate serious crimes and hold criminals accountable, he said.

“It’s about providing support for community-driven approaches to tackle crime, improve public safety, strengthen the public safety workforce, and tackling the root causes of crime to prevent crime from occurring, before it occurs,” Polis said in an interview with The Colorado Sun.

Crime prevention hasn’t been a top priority for Polis, who took office in 2019, but in an election year where Republicans have turned it into a central line of attack on Democrats and their policy agenda, that’s where his focus has shifted.

“It’s not by any means a partisan issue. It’s simply a response to elected officials, to a national increase in crime,” he said. “So we’re not alone in having these discussions. We know that Colorado can and must do better. It’s certainly on the minds of our constituents – people want to be safer across our state.”

Details about the governor’s proposals come as a consortium of law enforcement groups released a statement critical of the package while sharply criticizing recent legislation.

“We ask that elected officials, such as yourself and state legislators, recognize how recent legislation and policy changes have directly contributed to rising crime rates and struggles to recruit and retain officers,” said the letter signed by leaders from the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, County Sheriffs of Colorado and Colorado Fraternal Order of Police.

“The General Assembly has passed several bills, which you have signed into law, that make crime prevention more difficult, and prioritize offenders over victims and public safety.”

Some law enforcement leaders supported the governor’s plans, including Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, both who attended Thursday’s news conference to unveil the initiatives.

After Thursday’s news conference, House Republican Leader Hugh McKean said in a statement the governor’s plan fails to address the policies that he already signed into law.

“Those policies have softened penalties on criminals and hurt law enforcement agencies with increased restrictions and unfunded mandates, making it difficult for them to do their job,” McKean said.

Instead, Republican lawmakers back six public safety bills that would increase funding to law enforcement, give grants to train law enforcement officers and prevent criminals from being re-released from jail or prison if they have a history of multiple violent offenses, he said.

The package calls for more than $113 million to be invested in public safety efforts over the next two years.

  • $16.6 million will be invested in mental health services and efforts to train and recruit a diverse group of law enforcement officers.
  • $35.9 million will fund initiatives to make streets safer, including lighting improvements, increased community watch and grants for schools to expand mental health resources aimed to keep students and staff members safe.
  • $6 million will go toward gender-based violence services amid safety concerns compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • $47.9 million will go toward behavioral health services, including early intervention programs geared toward preventing at-risk individuals from becoming involved in the criminal justice system, adding bed capacity to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan and bolstering the state’s behavioral health workforce by providing scholarships, offsetting loans and leveraging bonus payments in underserved communities.
  • $7.1 million designated toward recidivism initiatives that focus on enhancing formerly incarcerated individuals’ ability to re-enter the workforce, improving outcomes for young people after release and fostering humane and purpose-driven facilities

The package does not attempt to resurrect criminal justice reforms proposed as part of Senate Bill 273 from last legislative session, which aimed to limit arrests for low-level criminal offenses, nor does it address reducing cash bail for people accused of committing low-level, nonviolent crimes.

Polis said lowering cash bail was a local issue, calling personal recognizance bonds “the jurisdiction of the local judicial system.”

As recently as June, however, Democratic lawmakers tried and failed to lower cash bail at the state level. A bill that died in the House Finance Committee also sought to prohibit courts from issuing a monetary bond for municipal offenses, misdemeanors and certain felony offenses, including for drugs, trespassing and nonviolent burglaries.

Director of Public Safety Stan Hilkey said the package is more geared toward “programmatic successes” rather than legislative public policy issues, though it’s possible those reforms are addressed later this year.

It also marks an opportunity to move forward from failed practices from the past, he said.

“We’re not interested in mass incarceration, that hasn’t worked. We are interested in solving problems,” Hilkey said.

Part of the package addresses keeping people out of the criminal justice system altogether, through co-responder models, violence interrupter programs and trauma screenings for children, 17th Judicial District Attorney Brian Mason said.

“The mental health crisis in this county disproportionately impacts the criminal justice system,” Mason said, citing a “staggeringly high” number of incarcerated people report having a mental health disorder.

Rudy Gonzales, executive director of nonprofit Servicios de la Raza, stressed the need for community control over resources aimed to help reduce crime and drive down recidivism rates.

“We want the government to please put the gas in the tank, but let us drive in developing the resources that we need for not only proactive work, but prevention and intervention to do this work, especially in behavioral health, substance misuse and getting our people (healthy) and reducing the harm in our community,” he said.

He hopes the resources provided through the package helps bolster culturally responsive services to address not only ethnic and linguistic needs but also benefit incarcerated people and those experiencing homelessness and poverty.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.