El Paso County reviving council to improve criminal justice system

By: Rachel Riley

June 13, 2017 Updated: June 13, 2017 at 6:51 pm

El Paso County is resurrecting a decades-old initiative aimed at improving aspects of the criminal justice system and examining issues that often land people before judges or behind bars.

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council of the Pikes Peak Region, which could begin meeting as early as this summer, will include two dozen representatives from the 4th Judicial District, local law enforcement agencies, nonprofits and other area organizations.

What issues the council will tackle remains a question, but officials have hinted at some areas they feel are ripe for exploring, including how the criminal justice system handles people with mental health or substance abuse problems and those who are homeless. “We need to be able to identify all the right players and come up with a plan that we can actually start implementing – realizing that the government doesn’t have to be the driver, but we should be at the table with community partners coming up with a holistic approach to addressing these issues,” said County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, who will chair the council.

Commissioners voted unanimously on June 1 to rename the panel, formerly known as the Justice Advisory Council, and amend its bylaws to include goals, such as making recommendations to address overcrowding at the El Paso County jail and suggesting intervention programs to reduce recidivism rates.

The decision to reform the council comes as the jail houses an average daily population of roughly 1,500 inmates and the county weighs major changes to its 40-bed detox facility next door, including finding another organization to run the program. Glenn said the detox center will likely be a part of the conversation.

The previous council, formed in the 1980s, stopped meeting in 2008, in part because budget cuts led to staffing issues at the county. But officials also realized the group lacked direction and accomplished little, said 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May, who served on the past council and will be appointed to the new one.

“If we really don’t have a mission, and we just end up sort of sitting around and talking about what’s happening at our agencies instead of coordinating, it will fail,” May said of the new council. “I’m very optimistic. I think the group has a realistic idea of what it takes to accomplish things.”

El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey will serve on the council, which will meet at least four times a year. Representatives from the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, Community Health Partnership, Discover Goodwill, AspenPointe and Springs Rescue Mission will also have seats.

George Reed, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said convening a variety of representatives to focus on one issue typically yields positive results.

“It heightens communication, and it opens up possibilities to connect dots in some favorable ways,” said Reed, who will serve on the council. “Sometimes that’s merely applying for grants to address social problems. Other times its fostering trust and communication and deeper knowledge.”

Tim Wolken, the county’s director of community services, said commissioners will likely approve member appointments in late June or early July.

Once the group has formed, it will join the National Network of Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils, which includes councils in 22 jurisdictions across the country. Such groups have helped to successfully implement initiatives such as jail diversion programs and crisis intervention training, which helps law enforcement officers respond to people with mental health issues by partnering agencies with health care providers, according to the National Association of Counties.

A few other counties in Colorado have similar boards, including Jefferson and Arapahoe. The Arapahoe County Justice Coordinating Committee, created in 2007, has recommended policies and improvements that have come to fruition. At the council’s suggestion, the county hired a full-time employee this year to help people with mental health issues navigate the court system, said Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Jackson, who chair’s the council’s behavioral health subcommittee.

El Paso County officials sought advice from Arapahoe County when reviving the council.

Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108