Op-Ed: As a Prosecutor, I Believe Denver Should Stop Criminalizing Homelessness

Op-Ed: As a Prosecutor, I Believe Denver Should Stop Criminalizing Homelessness
Brandon Marshall
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On Tuesday, voters in Denver will decide whether or not to continue arresting homeless people for simply occupying public space. As a prosecutor, I believe we can improve public safety by passing Initiative 300 and stopping these arrests.

I have served as a prosecutor in Colorado, Texas and Georgia, and I am a combat veteran of the Iraq War. I firmly believe in holding people accountable for their actions. I, however, do not believe in sweeping homeless people who have committed no real crime into the criminal justice system simply to remove them from public spaces.

It is tempting to call the police about homeless people occupying parks or sidewalks, because if police take them away, the caller will not see the consequences and it keeps us from having to address the underlying problems inherent with poverty. But as a prosecutor, I know that this action has serious consequences for our criminal justice system.

Our justice system is effective when we can hold people accountable swiftly and direct resources to the greatest threats to public safety. Every time police are called upon to arrest someone who poses little threat to public safety, it takes police officers, prosecutors and judges away from the cases where the public needs us. It fills our jails with people who do not need to be there, wasting taxpayer dollars. If we stopped clogging the system with unnecessary arrests, we would have more time to gather evidence, allowing us to solve more serious crimes and focus on the high-risk repeat offenders who truly threaten our way of life.

Arresting the homeless for ordinance violations also creates conflict between homeless people and law enforcement. We should not ask our police to initiate unnecessary confrontations that can result in injury and long-lasting animosity on both sides. Homeless people are key witnesses to street crime, and they can play an important role in criminal investigations. Our police are only as strong as their sources of information in the community. If they lose the trust of homeless individuals, crimes go unreported and charges are dropped for lack of evidence.

These arrests also cement homelessness further in our community. People with criminal arrests and convictions have great difficulty finding jobs. They may lose their opportunity for federal financial aid for college, and they can lose eligibility for housing. We can all agree that our community is better off when more people find jobs and housing. These arrest records are unnecessary barriers that we cannot afford.

By eliminating criminal penalties against homeless people simply for being in public space, the Right to Survive ballot measure will help build trust between police and homeless people. In doing so, it will help law enforcement more effectively stop crime. It will also help homeless people avoid a criminal record and get back on their feet. I ask you to help strengthen our community by supporting Right to Survive on Tuesday.

Jake Lilly is an Assistant District Attorney in Colorado and a proud U.S. Army veteran. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit group of prosecutors, police and other law enforcement officials working to improve the criminal justice system.

Westword occasionally publishes essays and op-eds on issues of interest to the Denver community. If you'd like to submit one, send it to editorial@westword.com.

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