Some of the smallest, low-level driving offenses can add up to time spent in jail, or hefty fines, and can most adversely affect people who struggle financially or have other circumstances that can keep them tangled in the criminal justice system — sometimes for as long as a decade.
A program being piloted by Jefferson and Gilpin counties is trying to connect people accused of low-level, non-violent crimes with the resources, treatment and the social support needed to address the underlying factors that led to the citation.
The Pathways program offers participants a sort of second chance and requires only that they reinstate their license or insurance coverage if they were ticketed for those lapses, for example.
“Expanding our diversionary options for individuals who are low-risk and who can be stabilized in our community is essential to community safety and well-being,” said District Attorney Alexis King, who created the program to accomplish one of her 2020 campaign promises.
One man working through the program now said he was pulled in early 2020 over and charged with driving without a valid license, driving without insurance and driving with expired license plates.
The charges, he said, came while he was struggling with family, financial and health issues.
After he was cited, the man’s financial plight worsened. The car he was living in at the time was towed and cost $300 to retrieve. He was surviving on only $900 per month from disability benefits. The driving without a license infraction, alone, carried a possible penalty of up to 6 months in jail, a $500 fine and a possible 1 year license suspension.
After he was ticketed, the man learned about the diversion program, which partly works to decrease the negative impacts of unlicensed and uninsured driving in the community, an arrangement offered through the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Golden, which serves Jefferson and Gilpin counties.
“It’s not like parole or probation where you have to go in and report,” said the man, who asked to be identified only by his last name, Montoya, because he is worried about judgment from people in his community. “They call me to check on me once or twice a month to see how my progress is going as far as getting insurance and getting license plates and getting my license.”
If Montoya reinstates his license, he will successfully complete the program, and his driving charges will be dismissed, said Ken Hayes, a former public defender who runs the program.
“It’s better than the alternative of being charged,” Montoya said. “They give you an opportunity to get everything fixed before you go to court and that’s very helpful. If I can get everything taken care of by the time I go to court, then the charges will be either dropped or lowered to a lesser charge.”
The Safe and Licensed Driver Program, launched in September, is the most recent addition to the First Judicial District’s Pathways Program. The programs — for people facing low-level drug or driving charges among other citations — divert participants into programming before charges are filed and before they become part of the criminal justice system, a major change from the previous Adult Diversion Program offered through the First Judicial District, which required a guilty plea before program participation.
Pathways also has programs that deal with substance use and offer help for drivers who need to regain their license and car insurance. Another program gives tips on how to avoid getting into further trouble with the law.
Each program or “path” focuses on community safety, repairing harm and reducing the consequences of criminal convictions, program leaders said. Pathways seeks to reduce people’s risk of reoffending by using assessments to identify and implement adequate community services and interventions, they said.
The Pathways program relies on client specialists to help program participants, who have in many cases served justice-involved clients for more than two decades. In 2022, Pathways specialists served about 530 clients. The program is expected to serve more than 1,300 people in 2023.
The Safe and Licensed Driver Program is significant because a high number of court cases on court dockets across Colorado involve people charged with driving under restraint, the technical term for driving while a license is suspended or revoked. Driving under restraint is the most common charge against people in Jefferson and Gilpin counties, program leaders said.
Program leaders said they were becoming increasingly concerned about the number of driving under restraint cases, which was slowing down the local justice system. Many people with the charge were not showing up to their court hearings, which was creating a backlog of warrants for people with driving under restraint cases.
In Colorado, when a person is ticketed for driving under restraint, their license is suspended for up to a year, Hayes said. Many people take the risk of driving while their license is suspended, he said, but the repercussions if they’re caught are significant.
If a person is ticketed for driving under restraint, or DUR, twice in five years, their license will be suspended for three years. If a person is charged three times with driving under restraint within seven years, their license would be suspended for five years, Hayes said.
People become caught in a cycle of revocation that can last five, 10, or even 15 years, making them unlikely to ever reinstate their driver’s license or drive with insurance, he said.
“So you can imagine, there’s this group of individuals who are driving on a suspended license because they need to, getting pulled over, getting a DUR, and getting their license suspended out even further,” he said. “So by focusing on DURs now, we’re starting to chip away at that population of folks that would have otherwise been in that cycle of driving and suspension.”
In a metro area without much public transportation, such as Jefferson County, many people must drive to accomplish daily tasks. But many lack the resources to navigate the unfamiliar and often confusing process to reinstate their license, Hayes said.
The driving portion of the Pathways program also works to resolve cases where people were cited for driving with no proof of insurance.
“The more drivers we have that are insured, the more we can ensure (victims) who are involved in accidents will be compensated,” Hayes said.
Almost 35% of participants identify as Hispanic, 6% of participants identify as Black, and 47% as white, numbers that match the demographics of the people entering the First Judicial District’s criminal justice system, Hayes said.
“Providing equitable opportunities to diversionary programs was one of our top priorities when developing the program,” said King, the district attorney. “This is essential for fundamental fairness and will build trust within our community.”
Since 2017, the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office has handled more than 35,000 cases involving people ticketed for driving under restraint or driving with no proof of insurance.
“What I hope this program accomplishes in a year is we have put folks that are successful in our program in a position to not be involved in the justice system in the future, that we have addressed those areas in their lives that made them be involved in the justice system, and that we have helped them and partnered with them to cure those areas and to improve those areas such that those no longer impact their likelihood of being involved in the justice system anymore,” Hayes said.