"Big Bitch" policy divides DA candidates George Brauchler, Leslie Hansen

This week's feature, "Sucker Punch," traces how an assault at a heavy metal concert turned into a habitual criminal prosecution in Arapahoe County, with one of the defendants facing a mountain of time while the other got probation. In the three-way race for district attorney in the 18th Judicial District, the current habitual criminal policy in the district has become an issue of sharp contention -- even between the two Republican candidates vying in next month's primary.

District Attorney Carol Chambers is term-limited after this year. Her tenure in the 18th -- which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Lincoln and Elbert counties -- has been marked by a series of controversies, from being publicly sanctioned for interfering in a civil case on behalf of an Englewood official to taking an unusual approach to financing death-penalty cases to paying bonuses to her deputies for maintaining a certain conviction rate.

But where Chambers has really distinguished herself as a maverick among DAs is in her approach to the habitual criminal statute, which allows prosecutors to seek penalties at three to four times the usual maximum for a particular offense if the offender already has two or three prior felony convictions. As noted in our story last year, "Welcome to Arapahell," her office files habitual criminal cases at a rate that far exceeds that of any other district in the state -- and, in more than three-fourths of the cases, the underlying crime is a nonviolent one.

Most of those cases never go to trial; facing what could be a 32- or 48-year sentence, most defendants end up accepting a plea deal that guarantees them significantly more time than they would receive for the same crime elsewhere in Colorado. The 18th's reputation for using the "bitch" for plea leverage has become a clear dividing line in the current campaign, which pits a former judge against Chambers's second-in-command and a prosecutor who challenged Chambers in the GOP primary race in 2008.

Former Arapahoe judge Ethan Feldman is running as the sole Democrat in the race. Denver attorney George Brauchler, an Iraq veteran who's served as a federal and county prosecutor, managed to pull 47 percent of the vote at the GOP district assembly and hopes to become the first Arapahoe DA from outside the "office bureaucracy" since 1968. Chambers's close ally Leslie Hansen petitioned her way onto the ballot and will face off with Brauchler in the June 26 primary, for which ballots go out June 5.

Hansen is running in part on what she describes as her success, with Chambers, of putting away career criminals with the habitual statute. "Crime is down because prisons are full," her website declares. "Leslie Hansen thinks that the cost to keep repeat and violent felony offenders from victimizing us again is money well spent."

Hansen lumps Brauchler with "the Democratic nominee" (Feldman) for his criticisms of the bitch-everybody approach and accuses him of suggesting that Chambers has been "too hard on habitual criminals." Brauchler, in turn, has claimed that the Chambers-Hansen team doesn't take enough serious felonies to trial and uses the statute as a "bludgeon" to obtain plea deals.

"Ms. Hansen has found very little to attack me on with conservatives," Brauchler says. "She has completely misstated things. I never said they were being 'too hard' on criminals. The fact is, there's no office that has dismissed more habitual criminal cases."

Brauchler calls the habitual criminal law "a highly effective tool to deal with repeat offenders who pose the greatest risk to the community," but says it should be applied with discretion. He charges that the current regime's "all hat, no cattle approach to prosecution" has resulted in a massive exodus of veteran prosecutors and little benefit to the public. "How does Boulder get the same drop in crime as they do without filing all these habitual cases?" he asks.

Back in January, when the field of GOP candidates for DA was a bit more crowded, Brauchler and Hansen debated the habitual criminal issue -- and Westword's coverage of it -- at a "Coffee 4 Conservatives" event. Check out the video below for their comments:

More from our News archive: "DA Carol Chambers under fire for giving witness a car in death-penalty case."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast