In a small corner of Colorado, a 35-year-old judge, appointed in the wake of the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd to foster criminal justice reform, lost her retention vote after two years in office. She was the only Colorado judge out of 135 to be voted out this year. She is former La Plata County Court Judge Anne Woods. She is me.

La Plata County includes Durango, a town of less than 20,000 with an “old west” feel nestled between the Rockies and tribal land. I took the bench four months after George Floyd was murdered, when communities everywhere were calling for change. I hoped to do my small part to make the community a little bit better.

I do not blame my losing the vote on anyone. But much like the “progressive prosecutors” across the country who tried to reform the system, I endured vitriol, misinformation, bias, misunderstanding, and pushback from the power structures within the system.

I hope someone else can pick up where I left off and avoid the mistakes I made that got me here. But I’m also here to warn you about the danger of misinformation and the fear-mongering it causes. We’ve seen it all over the country, most recently the Philadelphia District Attorney getting impeached with little empirical support for the contention that crime increased due to his policies.

My situation is just another example. Crime in La Plata County did not increase during my tenure on the bench. In fact, it decreased.

From the outset, there was a sustained effort to paint me in a particular way: inexperienced and a danger to public safety. As time progressed, the misinformation and hate continued and was exploited by social media users and the local Republican Party. I was called “the wicked witch,” a “disgrace to the judiciary,” “a joke,” “a failure,” and some called for my immediate disbarment. I stayed the course, knowing that change never came easy.  

I had been a public defender for five years before Gov. Jared Polis appointed me. I was open about my goal to reduce incarceration in favor of restorative justice and rehabilitation. I believe that the path to reduce recidivism is not one of retribution, but one that requires responding to the root cause of crime: multi-generational trauma that causes abuse, poverty, mental health issues, and substance abuse.

It’s not a perfect solution. It doesn’t always work. But it’s better than incarcerating people who, if given the chance to keep some stability, will stop victimizing others. Remaining incarcerated, they likely repeat the behavior that got them there in the first place when they get out – and they must be released, because we live in a free society. And many times, people who commit crimes were victims themselves. My primary goal was to hold offenders accountable, but in a humane way by encouraging them to practice empathy and self-reflection. If we want people to change behavior, we don’t get there by calling them monsters.

I tried my best to be open-minded, follow the law, and be kind. Preceding the election, the local judicial performance commission found that I met performance standards. It was not unanimous, as it is with most judges who run for retention. I later found out that one of the members of the ostensibly non-partisan commission is also the chair of the local Republican Party, which ran a campaign against my retention.

In navigating the challenges I faced on the bench, I reminded myself that doing the right thing was rarely the easy thing. I ignored the cherry-picked stories and legal-system illiteracy promulgated by the local newspaper and community members, opting instead to focus solely on my goal: to do what’s right and just. I didn’t campaign even when I could have after the La Plata County Republican Party, in its campaign against me, called me “a threat to public safety.” I didn’t want to undermine the non-partisan nature of the judiciary.

I lost the vote by a small margin. A judge losing a retention vote is rare, especially when they receive a thumbs up from the performance commission like I did — even if it’s not unanimous. This has only happened once before in Colorado.

☀ MORE IN OPINION

La Plata County is consistently Democrat-leaning. Democrat candidates easily won across the board in La Plata in this election and past elections. This means, in the case of my retention question, that many “liberals” are buying into the narrative of “do the crime, do the time” that has consistently failed to reduce crime in our country, and refusing to accept well-documented evidence that programs like drug court and community supervision actually work. People in my county assumed I was failing to hold offenders accountable in my quest for restorative justice, when, in fact, personal responsibility and accountability were consistent themes in my discussions with defendants, even though jail or denigration of the offender were not.

How did we get here? Probably a collision of factors, including some believing a young woman in a position of power can’t be competent, some succumbing to the media’s subjective crime reporting, and the fact that many, on both sides of the aisle, are too afraid to walk away from a narrative of justice that results in a disproportionate number of black, brown, and poor people behind bars.

To the people who share this vision: You are brave. Don’t give up. The work continues.


Anne K. Woods lives in Durango.

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Anne K. Woods

Anne K. Woods lives in Durango.