Denver’s District Attorney backs most police reform recommendations but not all

Beth McCann highlighted her department’s efforts, some of which have been derailed by the pandemic.
4 min. read
District Attorney Beth McCann attends a press conference announcing the new RAVEN law enforcement program, June 12, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann responded to multiple police reform recommendations at a meeting with city council members Monday, highlighting her department's new efforts. McCann agreed with most recommendations calling for things like diversion programs and funding for mental health facilities but opposed abolishing the cash bond program or making probation requirements more relaxed.

The 112 recommendations were originally published by the Reimagining Public Safety task force in May. Made up of community leaders, elected officials and community members, the task force was formed in response to nationwide protests in the summer of 2020. A committee is now reaching across city departments to assess the feasibility, impact and drawbacks of each reform.

McCann highlighted her office's two-year-old restorative justice program, which allows defendants to try alternative mediation with victims and avoid a criminal record.

"We have only had 1% recidivism rate, which is pretty amazing given that the general recidivism rate for people coming out of prison is 50%," McCann said.

McCann only disagreed with a few recommendations.

The first called to end cash bail for all defendants unless the defendant is a flight risk or threat. In the state of Colorado, every individual is entitled to a cash bond. The only exception is homicide cases, in which case a person can be held in pretrial detention without bail, McCann said.

"I cannot support eliminating cash bonds without an effective pretrial detention system," McCann said. "We are trying to be as reasonable and responsible as we can be, but also understanding that holding someone in jail before they've been convicted of a crime is very disruptive to that person's life, their family and their jobs."

The other recommendation called for reducing supervision and probation check-ins for nonviolent crimes.

"At some point, we have to hold these people accountable. They're getting a deal by getting probation in the first place," McCann said. "They have to have some mechanism to have consequences, so I'm not really in support of this."

Another recommendation called for developing "pre-arrest and pre-booking diversion programs in coordination with law enforcement and community providers." In other words, connecting individuals with programs or treatment before they are arrested.

Denver has already launched two initiatives to provide individuals experiencing homelessness, substance abuse or mental health crises with alternatives: the LEAD program and the highly-successful STAR program.

She also discussed the department's court for substance abuse disorders, previously known as "drug court." Since many drug possession offenses were reclassified as misdemeanors in 2019, the court has since changed its focus.

"It now addresses people who have charges that we think are caused by drug addiction, but are not necessarily drug cases," McCann said. "The probation officers are trained to work with people who are substance dependent, high-risk and high-need. These are people that have committed felonies and are headed to prison unless they can be successful in this program."

Launched in the spring of 2020, the diversion court has been heavily impacted by COVID-19, making it hard to properly assess its impact, McCann said.

She touched on other recommendations, like creating amnesty events to clear warrants and expungement clinics for certain offenses -- or making expungement an automatic process.

Denver has a few initiatives to address these issues, like the city's outreach court, which allows individuals experiencing homelessness to clear warrants or pay fines without coming to a courthouse. Expungement clinics have also helped those with marijuana convictions clear their records. McCann agreed the process is not always easy, but said the fixes are sometimes outside her department's reach.

"For felonies, [individuals] have to go through a sealing process, and it is cumbersome," McCann said. "I've talked to some folks that are hoping to do a bill this year to provide for automatic sealing when a crime is eligible."

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