Jake Lilly on Criminal Justice Reform and His Run for District Attorney

After working as a U.S. Senate page when he was sixteen, Jake Lilly went on to intern at the White House in 1998. After receiving his law degree at Cornell, he joined the Army and in 2005 served in Iraq, where he led search-and-rescue teams. Before all that, however, he was thirteen when his Boy Scout troop visited Colorado. He fell in love with the state, went home to Maryland, and told his parents that he would live here someday. Now 39, with thirteen years as a prosecutor, litigator and defense attorney under his belt, Lilly is running for district attorney of Jefferson and Gilpin counties, against incumbent Pete Weir.

His platform focuses on criminal-justice reform — reform he determined was needed after seeing the effects of the drug war up close. Lilly  believes in finding alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders and finding treatment alternatives for drug abusers. We sat down with Lilly to learn more about his positions, especially his support for continued legalization of marijuana.

Westword: Talk about your platform of criminal-justice reform.

Jake Lilly: There's no doubt, the American way is you take responsibility for your crime and you serve your sentence. But when you're done, you're done, and that's not what's happening here. When you're done, you're still stigmatized for the rest of your life. You create a permanent underclass of citizens; you don't allow people to escape from the life of crime. They can't vote, they can't serve on juries, they can't get public housing, they frequently can't get a job. It's an endless cycle. Certainly people will say, "Oh, some of these are bad people." Well, yeah, some of them are. But if you don't give people a chance to get out of that cycle, you're going to create a whole bunch of people who have no choice but to be bad.

So where does cannabis play into all of this?

Obviously, the War on Drugs has led to a massive increase in incarceration. Five hundred percent over thirty years is an incredible number. Some people will tell you the number is even higher than that — that's a conservative number. When you look at the history of the drug war, when we grew up, we were already in it, and so we thought this is actually how it always was — [but] this was a deliberate decision made by President Nixon and his staff in the '70s, and then President Reagan in the early '80s to go ahead and do this. It gives you a different perspective when you start reading the history of it and realize that in the '70s we incarcerated one-fifth of the people we do now. 

Incarcerating all these people hasn't changed addiction.... In every other state where I've been a prosecutor, cannabis was illegal. I've had to prosecute people for marijuana, and at the time, I thought it was dumb. There are real criminals out there that I can do some real good by locking up — and the guy smoking a joint with his friends, I'm not doing a whole lot of good. So it's nice to come here to Colorado where at least it's legal, but there's still a tremendous amount of resistance in the justice system, in the entire system.... They had to pass a bill to allow the use of marijuana in parole; there's still push-back within the system, even to the point where if you get arrested, if you have a medical card — even if it's legal marijuana — that will come up under certain prosecutors and certain judges. And even though it's legal, you can tell it still enters into the thinking.

How do you think that will shift?

I like to think there's a generational divide. Newer prosecutors [are focused] on the real drugs — let's deal with the heroin epidemic. When you're talking about drugs right now, heroin is a massively exploding epidemic.... The older generations of prosecutors grew up, and they swore marijuana was a gateway drug to harder drugs. I have not seen that in my career. In my career, the gateway drugs have been prescription drugs.

And where have you seen that drug dependence in your work?

I keep talking about [this]: Stop incarcerating nonviolent people. Mass incarceration is a huge problem in this country. In our debate the other day, my opponent essentially denied mass incarceration exists, which blew my mind, because I didn't think that was controversial. We look at the Department of Corrections right now: 44 percent of the people in there are nonviolent.... There are nonviolent people who deserve to go to jail, but at the same time, 44 percent, you'd think we could find a better use for our prisons. We should be focused on violent offenders.

How do you think the system needs to change to focus more on those violent offenders?

We talk about the over-criminalization of the mentally ill — veterans and poor minorities. I've been knocking on doors since April, and the number-one thing they want to talk about is mental illness and mental health. It's real simple. We haven't had a functioning mental-health system in this country in thirty years, and you could argue longer. Without that, we end up using the criminal-justice system to warehouse mentally ill people, and that isn't good for anybody.

People are always talking pro-police or anti-police. The police don't like having to arrest mentally ill people. That's not what their job is. Prosecutors don't like prosecuting them, the jail sure doesn't like having them in jail. The families don't like it, and the mentally ill person doesn't like it. It's a system that everybody should be able to agree isn't working, and the question is, can we pull some of the tremendous amounts of money currently being used to incarcerate people — $36,000 a year — can we pull some of that money out and put it into mental-health treatment and programs and beds (in treatment facilities or mental-health wards in jail) in order to prevent having to use it in the criminal-justice system? Frankly, it's a smarter use of our money. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, nobody wants to be wasting money.

How do you plan to go about doing that?

That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? Well, first you have to acknowledge there's a problem. But a lot of it has to do with the steps along the way, where you can divert people with mental illness out of the criminal-justice system and the key is emphasizing those diversions out. I call them off-ramps. They start with having a comprehensive-treatment program before the criminal-justice system even looks at something. That's something I know Governor Hickenlooper is addressing right now, so that's something that'll be done by the legislature, but certainly district attorneys supporting that will be a help.... It's going to take buy-in across the board. 

People have accused me of stepping too far out of the district attorney's lane in a lot of my ideas, and there's some truth in that, but the reality is that the district attorney has to be involved in this even if they're not the only player.

Find out more about Jake Lilly at

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Kate McKee Simmons interned at the National Catholic Reporter, was a reporter for the New York Post, and spent a brief stint in Israel learning international reporting before writing for Westword.