Discussing racial equity in the Arapahoe County justice system

Groups come together to improve the system

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When it comes to racial equity, what are the issues facing the Arapahoe County justice system and how can they be addressed? 

It’s a question the Arapahoe County Racial Equity Subcommittee has been tackling since its formation last year, and on Sept. 19, the board invited community members to share their questions and concerns during its first in-person event at Ready to Work Aurora.

“We conduct community education, and we also want to have some outreach from the community,” said Jeff Baker, an Arapahoe County commissioner and the chair of the subcommittee. “And that is what this meeting was set up to do, to try to open up the avenues of communication to our justice — folks in the justice system.” 

What is the Racial Equity Subcommittee? 

The Racial Equity Subcommittee is part of the Arapahoe County Justice Coordinating Committee, which was established in 2007, according to the county’s website

John Kellner, the district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, is a member of both groups. 

“It is a group that gets together to talk about: How do we improve the justice system in Arapahoe County?” Kellner said about the Justice Coordinating Committee. “And what grew out of that in the summer of 2020 was a desire to focus more on the racial and social equity issues.”

In early 2021, the subcommittee was officially created and began meeting via Zoom. 

The subcommittee was established to identify inequities, collect and analyze data on equity issues, and develop preventative and rehabilitative strategies to address bias and recommend those to the Justice Coordinating Committee, Baker said.

Members of the subcommittee include Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown, Centennial and Aurora council members, and representatives of organizations such as Second Chance Center, Harvest Church, AllHealth Network and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. 

Although she does not represent an organization, Leslie Summey — a resident of unincorporated Arapahoe County who is running to be the Arapahoe County Commissioner representing District 4 — joined the subcommittee as a community member.  

“I’m excited about it and passionate about the work of this subcommittee because I am a mother of five African American children. They have not been justice-involved, but you never know when that is going to happen,” Summey said.

Leslie Summey speaking at the Sept. 19 Arapahoe County Racial Equity Subcommittee meeting.
Leslie Summey speaking at the Sept. 19 Arapahoe County Racial Equity Subcommittee meeting.

“Therefore, I want to be that voice for the everyday mother who is worried about her children, and for the everyday human being who is African American, of color, who is — who knows about the inequities in the criminal justice system, and who can see the opportunities for growth there,” she said. 

Kellner said the subcommittee’s meetings have helped people learn from one another. 

“It’s eye-opening to talk to people who experience the justice system differently than I do as a prosecutor, and it’s important to get those perspectives to make sure we have a more fair and just system,” Kellner said. 

Data transparency

Something that intrigued Kellner was when decisions that were intended to be “race neutral” resulted in disparate outcomes, he said.

“You think you are doing everything right, and you realize that there’s some unintended consequences. And one of those things that we saw a few years ago was in our diversion program,” Kellner said. 

The juvenile diversion program serves about 600 kids a year and offers a range of services, including therapy and family support, Kellner said. It has good outcomes, with a recidivism rate of about 6.5%, he said. 

However, the program “was a lot more, frankly, white than it should have been, given the number of juveniles that should have been eligible,” Kellner said.

He said questions were raised about why there were not more kids from Aurora in the program. What they realized was the policy for intake, which said people with two prior municipal convictions were not eligible for the program, was part of the reason. 

“What happened is like Lone Tree, or Parker, or Highlands Ranch — some more affluent neighborhoods — they might have their own municipal courts with their own diversion programs,” Kellner said, explaining this allows for some people to do community service and not end up with a conviction. 

“We were excluding a lot more young Black men, or kids, because in Aurora, they didn’t have a diversion program for their municipal court. They ended up taking a lot more convictions,” he said. “So then, by the time they got to state level — like OK, this is more serious — we were excluding them.”

One good thing, Kellner said, is the City of Aurora is starting its own diversion program for municipal courts.

“They’ve recognized the need for that. And then we adjusted ourselves,” he said.

John Kellner speaking during the Sept. 19 Arapahoe County Racial Equity Subcommittee meeting.
John Kellner speaking during the Sept. 19 Arapahoe County Racial Equity Subcommittee meeting.

“I’ve been really committed to data and looking at things that may not be what I expect them to say,” Kellner said. 

A few weeks ago, Kellner said, eight district attorney offices announced a collaborative data transparency project. 

“We unveiled more data transparency than anybody’s ever had in the justice system, and this has never happened on this scale, across the country,” Kellner said. 

The data provides a starting point for identifying disparate outcomes that need further investigation, he explained.

For example, according to the 18th Judicial District Attorney Data Dashboard, in 2021, 38% of Black defendants charged with a felony pled guilty to a misdemeanor — a lesser charge. The percentage for white defendants was 43%. 

This year, however, it’s 37% for both Black and white defendants, he said. 

“So are we doing something a little different this year? We’re, obviously, talking a lot more about disparate outcomes and impacts, so maybe that’s an awareness piece that’s having some positive impact,” Kellner said. 

Addressing mental health 

One of the subcommittee members present at the meeting was Danielle Harris, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at AllHealth Network, a community behavioral health center.  

Harris spoke about AllHealth Network’s co-responder program that has partnered with law enforcement agencies in Arapahoe County, as well as its recently launched Mobile Response Unit in Englewood

“And so I’m wondering, have there been other programs like that, that have been successful?” Harris asked. 

Brown said the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office had a co-responder program with AllHealth Network and decided to bring the service internally, creating its own co-responder program

“We responded to almost 4,000 calls for service last year, using our mental health co-responders,” Brown said. 

It’s difficult to estimate the exact number of people who were not arrested as a result of the program, he said, but the agency estimates it was anywhere from about 850 to 1,000 people. 

The agency has plans to expand its co-responder program, he said, including introducing it at the detention facility. 

Of the approximately 950 people in custody right now, about 40% of them have self-reported about dealing with some sort of mental health issue, he said. 

“And then you add in substance use disorder and other non-reported mental health issues, we’re probably upwards of 75–85% of those individuals dealing with some sort of mental health crisis. So the mental health side of this is huge,” Brown said. 

“We didn’t ask to be the largest mental health facility in the county, at the detention facility, but we are. I didn’t ask to be the largest drug treatment facility in the county, but we are,” he said. 

School Resource Officer Deputy Adam Nardi holding Riley on Sept. 12 at the agency’s K-9 training field.
School Resource Officer Deputy Adam Nardi holding Riley on Sept. 12 at the agency’s K-9 training field.

The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office also recently expanded its therapy dog program by purchasing Riley, who is the first therapy dog for the Cherry Creek School District

During Riley’s first day on the job, he entered a school where there was a child in crisis, Brown said. 

“He wouldn’t go back to his classroom. He had been out for about an hour and 45 minutes,” Brown said about the child, explaining the teachers and psychologist had been switching spots, trying to get the child to engage. 

Once Riley entered the school with his handler, School Resource Officer Deputy Adam Nardi, the child asked if he could pet Riley. After about five minutes of petting Riley, the child said he was ready to go back to class, Brown said. 

“And then he was re-engaged for the rest of the day. That quick. I mean, within five minutes of being in a school, that dog paid for itself in that one day,” Brown said. “That’s something that we all strive to look for, is ways that we can introduce new resources or new technologies that benefit our communities.” 

Another benefit to the therapy dogs is they can be trained to detect guns, explosives or electronics, Brown explained, which allows for schools to address safety concerns in a way that is not aggressive and offers a therapeutic component. 

The agency’s three therapy dogs — Rex, left, Riley and Zeke — pose together during Riley’s swearing-in ceremony on Sept. 12 at the agency’s K-9 training field in Centennial.
The agency’s three therapy dogs — Rex, left, Riley and Zeke — pose together during Riley’s swearing-in ceremony on Sept. 12 at the agency’s …

One attendee at the event expressed concern about the accessibility of these types of resources for all students, saying that a Black child and a white child are often not given the same treatment, as well as concerns about the school-to-prison pipeline. 

According to American University, the pipeline “refers to practices and policies that disproportionately place students of color into the criminal justice system,” partially due to “biased application of harsh disciplinary measures and overuse of referrals to law enforcement.” 

To help make sure the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office is cognizant of implicit biases and is not perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline, Brown said the agency began collecting data last year about its school resource officers program, which includes data broken down by race and ethnicity. 

“It was interesting to me to look at the span and look at the breakdown of race, and it actually broke down closer to the demographic makeup of each individual school district,” Brown said, explaining the agency serves Deer Trail, Byers Public Schools, Cherry Creek and Littleton Public Schools. 

Out of the 230 instances that the school resource officers “got involved, in some sort of an action,” 215 of them were reported to officers by a student, a victim/parent, or school district officials, Brown said. Reports primarily came from school district officials, he said.

The agency continues to collect data this year, Brown said, and encourages other county sheriffs to do the same. 

Englewood Civic Center, home of the city's Municipal Court.
Englewood Civic Center, home of the city's Municipal Court.

Warrant clearing event

One of the great things that grew out of the Arapahoe County Racial Equity Subcommittee was a warrant clearing event held in February, Kellner said. 

The idea was to help people who have low-level warrants who got “out of step” with their case due to something like work issues or childcare problems — which are “things that oftentimes really impact those that are the least fortunate, least able to deal with them,” he said. 

Those eligible for the event included anyone with an active warrant or warrant for a probation violation in Arapahoe County for class 5 or 6 felony, class 4 drug felony, a misdemeanor or a traffic offense. 

There were public defenders, prosecutors and a judge present to help resolve the warrants and offer a clean slate to people, rather than arrest them, Kellner said. 

“It would have been a waste of resources to arrest those people, when really they needed — and we wanted to give them an opportunity — to get on track and comply with the law,” he said. 

In total, 101 warrants were cleared, according to the website of the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office. It was a huge cost saving, Brown said.

According to the website, for every warrant cleared, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office estimated it would have cost them two hours for the deputy to make the arrest, four hours for the booking process at the jail and $128 if the defendant spent the night in jail. 

The time and money saved can now be dedicated elsewhere to other services and needs, Brown said. 

Kellner described the event as “tremendous” and said some attendees came from out of state. 

“Truly, we want to treat less serious cases with less serious consequences, and help people get back on their feet when they need it,” Kellner said. “It was really uplifting for my team to participate.”

Jeff Baker, chair of the subcommittee, speaking during the Sept. 19 Arapahoe County Racial Equity Subcommittee meeting.
Jeff Baker, chair of the subcommittee, speaking during the Sept. 19 Arapahoe County Racial Equity Subcommittee meeting.

Public input wanted 

“Everybody involved in this committee wants an accessible justice system that people can trust. To have that, you’ve got to be out in the community,” Kellner said. 

Baker said he expects the next community meeting to be held in October. 

“If you’ve ever wondered, ‘Why do they do it that way?’ We might be able to answer that question,” Baker said. 

Baker said the subcommittee wants to hear people’s suggestions of how the justice system can improve.  

“The more voices we hear from, the better off we’re going to be for the solutions. Because there might be something that you have in your back pocket that we can tap into and benefit from,” Brown said. “That’s really what all this is about. It’s about us reaching across the aisle; it’s about us reaching out to community members.” 

Those interested in learning more about the Arapahoe County Racial Equity Subcommittee can visit arapahoegov.com/2306/Racial-Equity-Subcommittee. There is an online form on the website where residents can share comments with the subcommittee.  

Those interested in the data dashboard can visit data.dacolorado.org/18th.  

Correction: This story has been updated to remove incorrect case numbers in the original story.

Arapahoe County, Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, Tyler Brown, John Kellner, Racial Equity, Justice System

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