ALAMOSA — As the City of Alamosa takes applications for a new municipal judge, the city council is trying to determine what kind of judge it wants to succeed Judge Daniel Powell on the bench.
Powell will be leaving the city the end of December. The philosophy of the court became an issue after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a derogatory report regarding the Alamosa city court and judge about a month ago.
The council will likely be reviewing applications before its next regular meeting, so the council held a work session Wednesday night before its regular meeting to talk about some of the issues and questions the council might bring before judicial candidates.
City Clerk Holly Martinez said she had not yet received any applications but had received one inquiry from someone who was interested in the position.
One of the issues before the city council is how “tough” councilors want the new judge to be. Councilor Kristina Daniel said she did not necessarily see it as a matter of how tough the court should be but where the council wanted to set guidelines or guide posts for the judge to work within.
Councilors shared their thoughts during the Wednesday work session about how they would like the court to address the needs of both defendants and victims.
For example, Councilman Charles Griego said as a former long-time business owner he understood the need to make sure business people who have been the victims of theft are made whole. However, he said someone who has committed numerous crimes obviously needs help so that person will not keep committing crimes.
“Throwing them in jail and forgetting about them I think is wrong,” Griego said. “We’ve got to help them some way.”
He added that he thought a better term for what the council was looking for in a judge, rather than “tough” would be “fair.”
Mayor Josef Lucero said it is not only business people who have been victims of theft but residents as well. He said he was the victim of a theft of more than $2,000 worth of items. He said how to change a person’s behavior to not become a repeat offender is a good question.
Councilman Ty Coleman said, “For repeat offenders, ‘tough’ should be a word we use.” He said the court could be lenient for first time offenders but would need to send a tougher message for repeat offenders. Otherwise, people in the community and law enforcement tend to lose confidence in the system, he said.
“I think you should have a judge that’s fair and tough at the same time,” said Councilman Michael Stefano. “I don’t think we need a wishy washy judge. I think he should be allowed to administer the appropriate sentence that he thinks for that particular crime.”
Stefano said someone who commits a crime knows good from bad and the risks of committing a crime and should be willing to “face the time” for his actions.
“There was a time when they enforced the law and people respected the law,” he said. “Now they don’t respect the police anymore. They are not going to do nothing so they do it anyway because they don’t care about the consequences.”
Daniel said the U.S. has more people incarcerated than any place in the world, so “something we are doing is not working because people are still committing crimes.”
She said at the municipal level the council must consider whether it makes sense for that first-time offender to be jailed.
(The council is considering “decriminalizing” municipal court so that jail is not an option at the municipal level.)
She said the council needs to keep its focus on the municipal court, “just be real where we are at.”
Stefano said the judge should have leeway. “Let him do his job to judge the crime.”
He agreed that first time offenses should be viewed differently, but many of the repeat crimes are because of drugs and people stealing to support their drug habits.
“The problem is getting rid of the drugs,” he said.
He added that rehabilitation should be available for those with drug problems.
Alamosa Police Chief Duane Oakes said that is what the LEAD program is designed to do, address problems that are prompting repeat offenses. The city has applied for a grant to implement this program that coordinates services such as substance abuse and mental health treatment for people who have issues that cause them to become repeat offenders.
Oakes said his officers liked to charge people into municipal court because they saw results there, compared to charging folks into county court and seeing their charges wrapped into a plea bargain package or dismissed.
“The officers know there’s going to be a consequence,” Oakes said. “That’s why they like bringing cases into municipal court.”
Martinez added that defendants have said they did not want their charges filed in municipal court because they knew there would be consequences. They would rather have their charges filed in county court because they would be more likely to be dismissed.
The council talked about various tools the municipal judge has available. For example, in addition to fines and fees, the judge can sentence people to useful public service. The councilors discussed the problems with jailing people and even fining them, because the defendants might not pay their fines.
They talked about how to balance consequences with treatment and other assistance for the defendant.
Councilor Liz Thomas Hensley said it was like someone who was driving drunk. Alcoholism is a disease, and the person who is an alcoholic needs help, but driving drunk is also wrong.
“I do think people need to be accountable,” she said, adding, “I am 100 percent where we do need to help these people.”
Stefano said the person who got drunk made a choice to drink.
Lucero said he believed Judge Powell was doing a lot of what the council wanted him to do, as far as he understood.
“I don’t know that that’s quite accurate,” Daniel said.
She said the judge’s behavior, which includes the types of sentences he gave, was an issue.
Lucero said the city prosecutor did not see anything wrong with the way the court was being operated.
Daniel responded that the city prosecutor has a perspective that is valid and important, but so do defendants and the people in the community.
Lucero said he was going to take the word of somebody he knew and trusted over the ACLU.
“That’s your choice,” Daniel responded.
Hensley said the council has some similarities and some differences in its philosophies, and the questions the council asks judicial candidates — and the candidates’ answers — will help the council determine what route it wants to go.
“I don’t think we are that far off,” Daniel said. “It’s just important to see that there is more than one perspective.”