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In this Jan. 15, 2015 file photo, a view inside Arapahoe Count Courtroom 201. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, pool, file)
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Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order Monday forming a task force charged with recommending a replacement for a panel that helped guide the Colorado legislature on criminal justice policy for more than a decade before it was shut down this year by Democratic state lawmakers who said it wasn’t operating as intended. 

The governor’s task force is also charged with filling the policy-recommendation void left when the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice stopped operating earlier this year and until a replacement is created. 

“We want the work to continue,” Polis said in an interview with The Colorado Sun.

The CCJJ, formed by the General Assembly in 2007 and the brainchild of then-Gov. Bill Ritter, was intended to help remove partisanship from the process of drafting criminal justice reform policy. The 30-member panel was made up of legislators, prosecutors, representatives of the court and community members.

But progressive Democrats in the General Assembly this year began to have doubts about the commission and shut it down in a surprise vote in the final days of the 2023 legislative session when it came up for reauthorization in the House Judiciary Committee.  

“I think we spent the last 20 years coming back and fixing policy that CCJJ has recommended,” state Rep. Lorena Garcia, an Adams County Democrat and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told The Colorado Sun in May.

Polis and moderate Democrats were furious at the decision, with the governor quickly vowing to pursue a replacement. 

The working group formed by Polis’ executive order will have 17 members: 

  • A county human services representative
  • A victim advocate
  • A person who is a victim of crime 
  • A person who is a former offender
  • A representative in the field of behavioral health or mental health, or a substance use disorder treatment provider
  • A law enforcement representative
  • A person with criminal defense experience
  • An academic specializing in matters related to criminal justice
  • Invitations to four legislators to participate, starting with the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate judiciary committees
  • The attorney general, or their designee
  • The executive director of the Department of Public Safety, or their designee
  • The executive director of the Department of Corrections, or their designee 
  • The executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, or their designee, who will serve as a co-chair of the working group
  • The State Public Defender, or their designee, who will serve as a co-chair of the working group

The task force, whose makeup is similar to the CCJJ, though it has less influence from the courts, is charged with presenting its recommendations on a CCJJ replacement or replacements by March 1. 

Polis said he hopes the legislature, which reconvenes in January and operates for 120 days, will pass a bill acting on the panel’s advice.

One advantage of a criminal justice policy commission created by the legislature is that it can be better staffed than a panel created through an executive order, Polis said. 

“We’ll do our best to make it work,” Polis said. 

The governor said his executive order doesn’t have an end date, meaning the working group can remain in place indefinitely. It’s his plan, however, to end the task force should and once the legislature creates a CCJJ replacement. 

“If there’s a formal group in statute, the executive order would likely be rescinded at that point,” Polis said

The ACLU of Colorado, one of the groups that urged the legislature not to reauthorize the CCJJ, said Monday that it was disappointed with the makeup of the governor’s task force.

“We agree the sunsetting of the CCJJ should be an opportunity to ‘reimagine criminal justice policy and reform work in Colorado’ but that reimagining will be much harder to achieve when it’s the same cooks in the same kitchen as the CCJJ,” said Taylor Pendergrass, the group’s director of advocacy. “It is precisely because some criminal justice issues can be complex that a rigid, one-size-fits-all permanent committee is likely not the best way to do criminal justice policy making.  It didn’t work well in the last few years in the CCJJ, it’s not an approach you see much of in other states, and it’s not something we embrace with other complex policymaking in Colorado — whether that is housing, water or education.”

Garcia, the state representative who voted against reauthorizing the CCJJ, said Monday that she was disappointed in the governor’s order.

“I would like the see the focus of a criminal justice commission focus on innovative effective prevention methods, not debunked sentencing motivators that cost the state tons of money that could be funneled to early childhood, K-12 education (and) transportation,” she said.

The CCJJ’s work in recent years led to a rewrite of the state’s criminal code to downgrade the penalties for misdemeanors and reclassify a number of crimes as lower-level offenses. This year, three bills debated in the legislature originated in the CCJJ, including a controversial change to the state’s auto theft laws that was panned by progressives because of how it increased penalties for some kinds of car theft.

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The Sun that the CCJJ didn’t have enough racial or geographic diversity, nor enough people who had “lived experience” with the criminal justice system.

“It was my understanding that the CCJJ was meant to be a place free from politics where you could dive into issues, as difficult or complicated or nuanced as they may be,” Gonzales said. “But increasingly CCJJ became a place where we, as a legislature, sent things that we didn’t really want to study or wanted to slow down.”

Polis said he was disappointed when the CCJJ wasn’t reauthorized and that he thinks the work the panel did changed Colorado for the better.

“Look at the body of work — over 100 bills that became law,” he said. “I would really put the question to anybody: Is Colorado more just and safer because of the over 100 bills that came out of CCJJ? I think almost anyone anywhere on the spectrum would agree that while, of course, nobody can get everything perfect every time, Colorado is safer and more just because of those over 100 bills that came out of this process — that became law.”

Law enforcement groups and prosecutors celebrated Polis’ order in statement’s released by the governor’s office.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....