City advances decriminalization ordinance
ALAMOSA — Alamosa city council on Wednesday advanced an ordinance that among other changes will decriminalize most of the city code violations, at least on the first offense.
The council unanimously approved on first reading and scheduled for a public hearing on February 7 an ordinance amending the city’s code regarding violations.
City Attorney Erich Schwiesow said, “What this does primarily is takes jail off of the table for most of these violations.” When this ordinance amendment is approved, except for 16-17 violations, city code violations will not present the option of jail as a punishment on the first offense, he explained.
“Jail is off the table until you reach your fourth violation,” Schwiesow said.
While jail would not be a sentencing option for first offenses on most violations, it would go back “on the table” for the fourth violation in two years.
Schwiesow said while the city was going to amend its ordinance regarding municipal court and code violations, this was a good time to make other changes such as:
- Permitting the judge to require restitution, something the court has been doing, but this officially includes that option in the ordinance.
- Allowing the court to impose deferred sentence judgments, also something the court has been doing, but this includes it in the ordinance.
- Limiting jail to a maximum of 364 days, rather than a full year of 365 days, which avoids immigration complications.
- Changing the cruelty to animals penalty to reflect the new rule of jail as an option on the fourth offense (the ordinance currently requires jail on the second offense.) Councilor Charles Griego said he believed jail should still be an option on the first offense of poisoning an animal. Schwiesow said that offense could be added to the 16 already tagged for potential jail on the first offense. (Those include such offenses as resisting a police officer, assault, reckless endangerment and reckless driving.)
- Removing jail as a penalty for not paying fines, something new legislation prohibits.
- Provides “off ramp” and “on ramp” provisions for the city prosecutor to ask the judge to add jail or remove jail as a sentencing option under special circumstances when it would not be (or would be) normally an option.
This gives discretion to the court and those who work in the municipal court system, Schwiesow explained, because there is no way to foresee every situation that might arise.
Schwiesow said the ordinance might change slightly before the final reading and approval next month. He is still pursuing internal review of this ordinance, he said, and is expecting some changes might be suggested from City Prosecutor Gene Farish. He said there might also be some comments from those outside the court, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado. There will also be an opportunity for comment during the public hearing for the ordinance on February 7.
One of the reasons for decriminalizing many of the city violations is financial, since the city would be required to offer defense counsel for all defendants for whom jail is a potential sentence. City Manager Heather Brooks said decriminalizing city offenses will affect the budget, but there will still be folks for whom the city will have to offer court-appointed counsel, for example those who accumulate four offenses within two years. She said there are a large percentage of offenders who have already reached that fourth offense in two years now.
Costs for court-appointed counsel last year totaled $15,786, although the city had only budgeted $10,000. That was about double the costs over the year before, which were nearly $8,000, although the city had budgeted $5,000. Costs in 2015 were $5,203, just over the budgeted $4,500.
Councilman David Broyles said although this might not be a perfect ordinance, it gives the city something to try out and observe over time to see how it works out.
Mayor Ty Coleman said this is moving in the right direction.
“I think we are all looking to do what’s right, just and fair for our city,” he said, “and I think we are headed in the right direction.”