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Habitual criminal policy: Who's going away for a long, long time?

This week's cover story, "Welcome to Arapahell," examines Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers's frequent filing of habitual criminal charges against repeat offenders, which can triple or quadruple the length of a prison sentence. While other district attorneys use the habitual criminal charge sparingly, reserving it for their most violent or prolific felons, Chambers filed 623 habitual cases during 2010 and the first half of 2011 -- and more than three-fourths of the time, the underlying charge that triggered the habitual case was a nonviolent one.

Here's a more detailed breakout of the type of cases in which prosecutors in the 18th Judicial District (Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties) sought to "bitch" the defendant:

While the label "habitual criminal" conjures up images of brutal, career felons, nonviolent habitual cases outnumber violent ones in Arapahoe by better than a four-to-one margin.

More than half are facing the bitch count because of drug or theft charges or because they violated the terms of their community corrections placement. (The "other" category includes the felony stalking charge Dennis Pauls faced that is followed in this week's feature.) True, some of those "nonviolent" repeat offenders may also have past convictions for violent crimes; yet in Arapahoe County, two-thirds of all "escape" cases filed against people who abscond from halfway houses or parole supervision end up in habitual filings, and you can't say the same thing for violent offenders.

Ironically, the more violent the crime, the less likely the bitch count will be pursued, since there are a number of aggravating factors already sufficient to insure that the offender is going to get a long sentence.

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When someone is already going to prison for life for murder, prosecutors rarely bother with the habitual charge.

As noted in the article, only a handful of habitual cases actually go to trial in the 18th; 95 percent of the time, the habitual charge is dismissed after the defendant agrees to plead guilty and accept a sentence that is often much longer than he or she would receive for the same offense in another county.

For a bit of history of the controversies surrounding Carol Chambers and her habitual criminal policy, check out our 2007 feature "The Punisher."

Follow Alan Prendergast on Twitter @alanprend

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