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On crime and punishment

Veronica Whitney
Special to the Daily Mark Hurlbert
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EAGLE COUNTY – District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, a Republican who lives in Breckenridge, is facing a challenge from Democratic defense attorney Bruce Brown, a Clear Creek County resident. Eagle County is part of the 5th Judicial District along with Summit, Lake and Clear Creek Counties. Hurlbert has been the district attorney since December, 2002, when he was appointed by Gov. Bill Owens. Since last summer, he had overseen the Kobe Bryant case until all criminal charges were dropped Sept. 1 when the accuser decided not to testify. Brown, currently in private practice, has never been a prosecutor. Q: Violent crimes are in the rise in the district, what would you do to curb this problem?Brown: To prevent violent crime, offenders must be held accountable and punished severely. Teamwork among local law enforcement and the community is key. Prosecutors don’t work in isolation, but become a critical link to complete the “circle of public safety.”Hurlbert: Prevention starts with effective prosecution coupled with programs such as juvenile diversion. The first step in effective prosecution to stem the rise of violent crimes is to hire experienced prosecutors who know how to prosecute these serious crimes and send the offenders to prison. That has been a priority for me over the past two years and has been a success for this office. When I became district attorney, the deputy district attorney with the most experience had four years and had never prosecuted a homicide case. Now, we have four of the 10 attorneys with over five years of experience. One deputy district attorney is recognized around the state as an expert in domestic violence prosecutions and another has eight years in Mesa County, three of that as a sexual assault deputy district attorney. Half of the attorney staff can try a serious sexual assault or homicide.The second step is to work with law enforcement to bring thorough investigations of violent crimes to the District Attorney’s Office. The District Attorney’s Office not only has a great relationship with law enforcement, but we have participated in and will continue to participate in training law enforcement. Finally, the District Attorney’s Office has a juvenile diversion program that gets juvenile offenders to admit their crimes and have consequences quickly, without getting into the juvenile justice system. This prevents juvenile offenders from becoming adult offenders.

Q: What were the positives and negatives of the Kobe Bryant case?Brown: The Kobe Bryant case was a total disaster for the integrity of our prosecutor’s office. As a consequence, true victims of crime are now more reluctant than ever to report offenses because they don’t feel well protected by the prosecutor’s office. Limited prosecution funds were poured down the drain, there being no public safety benefit from the nearly $500,000 added costs, wasted on a case that never went to trial. The only way to reap any benefit from this fiasco is to coordinate existing community-based resources to reach out to victims and let them know that if they have been the victim of a a criminal act they will be safe and protected in court by a capable prosecutor.We, as a judicial community, have a duty to spearhead those efforts to restore a now tarnished reputation.Hurlbert: Although, this is a rather unfair question as my opponent has not seen any of the police reports, never even came to one hearing and is relying on Front Range newspaper reports, the people of Eagle County deserve a fair and unbiased view of the Bryant case from the chief prosecutor in the district. On the plus side, we showed the people of the 5th Judicial District that they have a District Attorney’s Office that will fight for them if they are hurt. The people of the 5th also know that they have a District Attorney’s Office that will not allow one type of justice for the rich and famous and another for the rest of us. Another plus is the District Attorney’s Office now has two prosecutors that have prosecuted at the highest level in the country. This is an experience that cannot be discounted and provides an incredibly high level of prosecution in this small district. On the minus side, we learned that our little office cannot prosecute such a huge case without help from the rest of the state. The defense filed over 700 motions, responses and replies. Given our small staff of 10 attorneys, it would have been impossible to keep up with such a huge case, even though we had the experience at that time. If we were to use just the attorneys in the office, justice would have ground to a halt in the other cases. It is a simple matter of numbers. A minus was that some Front Range defense attorneys were allowed to destroy an Eagle County woman who was hurt. Although my office fought for her, seeing a rape victim’s sexual history paraded on national television certainly has resulted in other rape victims not reporting. This is an unfortunate, but temporary situation as my office will have a deputy district attorney that will exclusively prosecute sexual assault cases and reach out to victims to know they have a District Attorney’s Office that will fight for them. Another minus is that almost 700 citizens of Eagle County showed for jury duty on a case that was ultimately dismissed. That will not happen again as long as I am the district attorney.

Q: What cases would you give priority to?Bruce Brown: The most important cases to prosecute are crimes of violence — murder, sexual assault, using weapons during an offense, and robbery. Among misdemeanors, our priority must be domestic violence and driving under the influence.Mark Hurlbert: The District Attorney’s Office has and will continue to give violent crimes a priority. Over the past few years the district has seen a rise in violent crimes and we have had great success in prosecution of these crimes. From the child abuse case of People vs. Paxon to the homicide case of People vs. Stockdale, this office has successfully prosecuted these violent crimes and protected this community. We will continue to make successful prosecution of violent crimes a priority.Q: What crimes would you give a lower priority? Brown: “Nuisance” offenses that make our communities unpleasant should be informally handled if the offenders are amenable to change their behaviors. For example, neighbors who have disputes over barking dogs or pets off leash should be directed initially to an informal arbitration in hopes of devising a plan for compliance with laws as a constructive alternative to a Judge’s order. If no cooperation or compliance occurs,professional prosecutors should utilize formal courtroom processes. Juvenile offenders with proper parental support, such as “first-timers” who may have stolen a candy bar, should be diverted into community service or appropriate counseling before punitive sanctions are imposed. Hurlbert: Under state statutes, I have an ethical and legal obligation to prosecute any crimes that I can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. There are no minor crimes to those who are hurt. Although, my opponent has said that he will not prosecute animal control crimes or drug crimes, to say that we will not prosecute some crimes as a matter of policy is irresponsible and will never be done in a District Attorney’s Office led by me.

Q: How do you plan to prioritize the budget?Brown: The budgetary priority must be on paying staff attorneys and support staff competitive salaries to secure that the investment made in training young attorneys becomes returned through a long lasting commitment to the office. Cutting-edge trial performance and presentation is the next highest budget priority.Hurlbert: The 2005 budget for the District Attorney’s Office is $2.28 million. Approximately $2 million is used for salaries and benefits. The obvious priority is salaries. In the two years that I have been the District Attorney, I have raised salaries 10 percent. I will continue to place a priority on salaries. Outside of salaries, a priority is to work within the budget and with grants to update technology and increase training for all staff. I have worked on four budgets and managed two. Every budget I have managed has come in under budget. I take very seriously that I am managing the people’s money. I also have been very aggressive in winning state and local grant money. This takes the pressure off the taxpayers and lowers the contributions made by the counties. Grant money also gives this office more flexibility and allows for the purchase of equipment that frees up other moneys for salaries and benefits. I have also been very aggressive in gaining reimbursement for costs of prosecution. The state gave the District Attorney’s Office a reimbursement of over $80,000 in costs associated with prosecution of cases. This also allows for some freedom in the budget. Q: In the past years there has been a high turnover of prosecutors in the district. What would you do to keep good prosecutors?Brown: Turnover should be addressed in the following fashion: The election of a district attorney who, through the leadership of his example, will be a model for young prosecutors learning how to try a criminal case and create an atmosphere of camaraderie that cannot be beat.Prosecutors are naturally attracted to doing their job as a public service without exclusively focusing on salary. Additionally, an in-district training program should be instituted, and tangible benefits in the form of increased salaries or a flexible work schedule would have immediate, positive affects.

Hurlbert: Although much has been made of the turnover in the District Attorney’s Office, the rate of turnover since I took office is not any higher than the rate of turnover in the past 10 years and is not any different than any other sector of our resort communities. Also, the assumption is that all the attorneys that have left were good prosecutors. Although we lost some good prosecutors in the past two years, there were also some that were not doing their job of protecting the community and had to be let go. Since May 2003, there has been a stabilization of the attorney staff in the District Attorney’s Office. We now have 10 committed and experienced D.A.s in the office. I have done that by first raising salaries by 10 percent over the past two years. Second, I have increased and formalized the training. We have trainings that take place out of state, instate and, for the first time, in office. This allows the deputy district attorneys to feel more confident in their jobs. Third, we are one of only three District Attorney’s Offices to have the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA. This is a pension plan that is responsible for keeping state employees in their jobs longer. Finally, I have revamped the hiring procedures to look for employees that will become a part of the community and therefore stay longer. This can only be accomplished by a D.A. who has been a prosecutor for a long time and has been a part of the community.In the future, we are going to have a sexual assault deputy district attorney. This will take the pressures off the other district court deputy district attorneys and provide for a lesser caseload. Given that the 5th has one of the highest caseloads per deputy district attorney in the state, this will be a welcome change. As always, I will work on higher salaries for all staff, not just attorney staff. Editor’s note: No space limits were set for the candidates’ answers to these questions and they were only edited for style. Hurlbert provided longer answers than Brown. Staff Writer Veronica Whitney can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 454 or vwhitney@vaildaily.com. Vail, Colorado


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