The Punisher

Censured but defiant, Carol Chambers goes after habitual criminals -- and cops, judges and lawyers -- like no other district attorney. But at what cost?

LeRoi is now a defense attorney. He won't comment on why he left the DA's office, but he acknowledges that the fallout over the time study was a problem. "I had been on the bench, and I had an allegiance to the judges, who I considered to be my friends," he says. "I was put in an extremely difficult position, and it proved to be untenable. It got to the point where Carol didn't respect a lot of the judges and many of them didn't respect her."

Some judges indicated they might "retaliate against our office for documenting what was going on in a public courtroom," Chambers says. But she maintains that the effort made the judges more conscientious about how they managed court time: "I don't think there's a problem anymore. The news got out, not only to the judges, but to the news media, that we were doing this. There was at least one reporter who had a hidden camera in one of the courtrooms."

The district's judicial lineup has undergone some turnover in recent months, and Chambers says the working relationship has improved. Last fall she was one of only two district attorneys who publicly supported Amendment 40, the failed attempt to impose term limits on judges. "I think term limits have been good for the executive branch," she says. "You bring in new energy, some sense of idealism, creativity. What we end up with are people who stay on the bench for twenty years to get their pension. They may have burned out at year eleven, but they're still there."

Frank Vasquez was facing a 48-year stretch as a habitual criminal.
Frank Vasquez was facing a 48-year stretch as a habitual criminal.
Carol Chambers was the unlikely victor in the 2004 race for DA in the 18th Judicial District.
Carol Chambers was the unlikely victor in the 2004 race for DA in the 18th Judicial District.

Whipping cops, commissioners, defense lawyers and judges into shape seems to be only the first phase of the Chambers revolution. She talks about devoting more resources to the prevention side of the crime-fighting equation, beefing up juvenile-diversion programs and using grant money to fund more research into what works and what doesn't. She was in the process of launching a foundation for crime victims, inspired in part by the Brent Brents horror, before she was distracted by the pesky ethics complaint over her phone call to Jonathan Steiner. And she touched off another firestorm in October by proposing that victims be offered consoling spiritual texts, drawn from various religions, when they're summoned to the courthouse. Such an arrangement might violate the constitutional separation of church and state, but Chambers calls it a matter of principle.

"I'm going to do the right thing in any given situation," she says.

Colorado's current habitual-offender law dates back to 1993. It's part of a wave of get-tough sentencing measures that swept the country in the early 1990s, including California's notorious three-strikes law. The effects of such legislation on crime rates has been much studied, with no clear conclusions. Some experts believe it may be responsible for as much as one-fourth of the reduction in crime over the past decade, largely by keeping a hard-core criminal class incarcerated longer, while others contend its deterrent effect has been negligible.

Less debatable is the impact such laws have had on the prison system and state budgets. Longer sentences boost the prison population overall and raise the median age of that population, which raises prison health-care costs. The incarceration boom also tends to sap funds from drug-treatment programs and other services that are supposed to help prisoners re-enter society, as states get into an endless cycle of building more prisons to keep up with the growing tide of inmates. With prisons full and a 25 percent jump in the inmate population expected over four years, Colorado officials are once again shipping prisoners out of state and seeking $730 million for new prison construction.

The 1993 law singles out violent criminals for particularly stiff punishment. Anyone with three prior felonies who commits a crime of violence can be eligible for a minimum forty-year sentence before parole eligibility. But the law also allows for offenders with two previous felony convictions in the past ten years -- even fairly minor ones, such as check fraud -- to be hammered with three times the maximum sentence for their latest offense; those with three priors can get four times the maximum, even if their latest crime is a laughably low-rent felony.

Of course, these penalties weren't intended to be automatically imposed. It's up to the district attorney to decide when habitual charges should be filed. "When these laws come up, what the district attorneys say to the legislature is, 'Trust us, we will exercise discretion,'" says David Kaplan, who headed the state's public-defender system for seven years. "Pretty consistently, that trust is not warranted."

Most prosecutors reserve habitual counts for violent offenders and career crooks, such as burglars, who may be getting caught only a few times out of dozens of scores. Even in those cases, habitual counts are often dismissed by the DA before they ever get to trial; they're used as a club to obtain plea deals that are anything but a bargain, as far as the defendant is concerned. Until the new policy took hold in the 18th, Colorado Springs prosecutors filed more bitch cases than anyone -- more than a hundred a year -- but they did it chiefly as a threat that would be withdrawn if a satisfactory deal was reached.

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