ALAMOSA — The City of Alamosa has already addressed some of the concerns raised in an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report on the Alamosa Municipal Court, city staff told Alamosa city councilors during a Wednesday evening work session.
City Manager Heather Brooks and City Attorney Erich Schwiesow reviewed allegations that had been made in the ACLU report released last week against the city court and Municipal Judge Daniel Powell, who was not present at the Wednesday work session.
Future council actions will likely include a meeting with Judge Powell, who is employed by the city council, and the creation of a judicial review committee.
Brooks said that last Thursday was the first time city staff saw the ACLU’s 18-page report, so they only had a week, counting the weekend, to prepare responses to allegations made in the report.
“Staff very much wants to be objective, fair, do due diligence,” Brooks told the city council.
“It is unfortunate the ACLU chose not to communicate directly with the city,” she said. “This case study clearly does not include many of the improvements we have made over the last year.”
For example, the city court now utilizes youth and adult diversion programs. Also, in May the judge issued a standing order to the jail that it could release offenders on PR (personal recognizance) bonds of $500 or less, a move that has dramatically reduced the number of city inmates in the jail according to Brooks.
The city is also in the middle of negotiations for alternative sentencing, Brooks said, which would remove offenders from the jail system entirely, and will be applying for funding for the LEAD program, another diversion program that integrates services and resources for offenders to keep them out of the criminal justice system in the future.
“The ACLU talked about needing assistance for these individuals beyond incarceration, and that’s exactly what these programs are,” Brooks said. “It’s unfortunate they were not included in the case study.”
Regarding allegations of Judge Powell’s insensitivity to defendants’ poverty and drug abuse when sentencing them, Brooks said the ACLU report does not consider the full criminal background of defendants that the judge considers when sentencing them. Someone who is a first offender, for example, will receive a different sentence than someone who is constantly before the court. Some of the people whose stories were featured in the ACLU report have extensive criminal backgrounds, Brooks said.
Schwiesow added that when the city council hired Judge Powell several years ago, the council’s desire at that point was to take a “tough on crime” stand.
“The council has changed over since then,” he said. “Maybe council has a different philosophy.”
Regarding an allegation that the judge did not take into account valid excuses for people failing to appear for court, Brooks said judges deal with a pattern of dishonesty among defendants and therefore cannot just take their word for why they didn’t make it to court. She added that the city court and prosecutor could discuss further, however, what types of excuses might be considered valid.
Regarding lengthy jail stays and the city’s responsibility for jail overcrowding, Brooks said the majority of defendants are not in jail solely on municipal cases.
She added that on any given day, the highest number of municipal-only offenders in the county jail is three, and considering there might be 120 people in jail on a regular basis, “we are not driving an overcrowding issue at all.”
Also, Judge Powell’s May order has reduced the number of days municipal offenders are spending in jail.
Regarding the allegation that the judge did not take into account people’s ability to pay, Brooks said something ACLU did not take into consideration was the choices people might have made that contributed to their “inability to pay.” The judge regularly asks defendants questions about their ability to pay, she added, and assesses fines and fees below amounts allowed by state statute. The penalties also vary depending on the number of times an offender has committed crimes.
In addition, the judge routinely grants extensions on pay schedules, Brooks explained.
She said staff would look into what other courts are doing.
Regarding the ACLU allegation that people are in jail because they can’t pay their fines, essentially creating a “debtor’s prison,” city staff responded that no warrants have been issued for failure to pay since the legislature passed a statute in 2014 prohibiting that. The legislature amended the statute in 2016 prohibiting courts from putting people in jail for failing to appear for failure to pay hearings, Schwiesow explained.
“The debtor’s prison arguments have been addressed actually by the courts prior to the ACLU case study coming out,” he said.
Brooks added that the ACLU failed to take into account the number of notices the court issues before it issues a warrant.
Regarding an allegation of unconstitutional guilty pleas, Brooks said the city is modifying its advisement of rights form to add an arraignment date for defendants considering guilty pleas, just to make it clearer.
Regarding an allegation that indigent defendants were not receiving appropriate legal representation, Brooks pointed out that the city has spent funds for legal counsel for indigent defendants. In 2015 the city spent more than $5,200 for legal counsel for indigent defendants, nearly $9,800 in 2016 and more than $16,500 in 2017, with some of that going to defendants whose cases moved forward from the previous year.
One of the major recommendations from city staff is for the city council to set up a judicial performance advisory board that could include people like another judge, someone from the public defender’s office, others in the legal field and community members. This group would serve in an ongoing capacity to monitor and evaluate the court — not determining what the judge should do but evaluating how he does it. Other recommendations include: adding arraignment hearing; modifying the Rule 11 advisement forms; removing jail as a possible sentencing option until there are multiple offenses; providing application for defense at the initial point of contact; review of role of prosecutor and defense in coordinating continuations for defendants with valid reasons for not appearing; identifying a collection agency for court costs; including Advantage Treatment Centers, Inc. (formerly community corrections) as a sentencing option and service provider; applying for LEAD program (adult diversion program that addresses issues behind multiple offenses) funding; and continuation of the youth and adult diversion programs that are in place.
The ACLU report and the city’s responses/recommendations will be posted on the city’s website.