Chapter 5: Mesa County, Colorado

Background

Mesa County (Grand Junction), Colorado, is located on Colorado’s western slope, approximately 250 miles west of Denver. The county encompasses 3,300 square miles; 74% of that territory consists of public land. The population of Mesa County is estimated at 148,513 (2015 U.S. Census Bureau). The county’s population is 94.1% white, 14.4% Hispanic or Latino, 1.5% American Indian and Alaska Native, and 1.0% black or African American (2015 U.S. Census Bureau). The median household income is $48,610, and 15.4% of the population live below the poverty line (2015 U.S. Census Bureau).

The county’s court system constitutes the 21st Judicial District of Colorado, one of several single-county judicial districts in the state. The office of the Mesa County sheriff is an elected position that has responsibility for the county jail, work release, and work-ender programs. The jail capacity is 442, and the average daily population of the jail in recent years has been over 450, with approximately 7,000 jailable cases filed each year. The Criminal Justice Services Department (CJSD) is a county department that is responsible for pretrial services, halfway housing for prison alternatives, and other community-based services (i.e., day reporting, pretrial diversion, deferred services, and electronic monitoring). CJSD also has a county-managed treatment facility offering residential and outpatient services. Probation and parole are both state functions, managed by separate entities.

  Profile of Mesa County’s Justice System

2015

  Jail Rated Capacity

392

  Jail Bookings

5,850

  Jail Average Daily Population

382

  Pretrial Supervision Average Daily Population

458

  Community Corrections Population (e.g., prison diversion/transition, halfway housing)

168

  Probation Admissions

1,247

  Probation Population

2,659


Mesa County’s interest in the EBDM initiative was primarily driven by a concern for the effective use of fiscal resources as well as a strong interest in improving the outcomes produced by the county’s various sentencing options. A previously formed collaborative leadership group identified that its goals and those of the initiative were one and the same and, as a result, pursued the opportunity to participate in the initiative.

Mesa County was selected as a pilot site because of its history of working together to solve challenges in the criminal justice system and its active participation in a state-level effort to develop a pretrial risk assessment tool.

MESA COUNTY’S EBDM VISION, MISSION, AND TEAM

“This initiative has more potential to reach the common goals of less crime, a stable jail population, less fear, and increased community satisfaction in the justice system than anything I’ve seen in this community in the last 25 years.”
–Sheriff Stan Hilkey

The Mesa County Criminal Justice Leadership Group (CJLG) consists of 17 agencies. It was formed in 2010 (just prior to the county’s participation in the EBDM initiative) for the purpose of collaboratively making system changes to address jail overcrowding. The CJLG serves as the sounding board and oversight committee for the EBDM executive committee.

The Mesa County EBDM Policy Team’s vision and mission statement is: “One less crime, one less victim, and one less offender to create a safer community through the use of principles and practices of reliable evidence-based decision making.”

The EBDM executive committee is composed of the following stakeholders who committed to work together toward specific risk and harm reduction goals:

  • the chief judge;
  • county judges;
  • the deputy director of the State Office of Alternate Defense Counsel;
  • the director of the Office of the Public Defender;
  • the county sheriff;
  • the chief of probation;
  • the probation department supervisor;
  • the district attorney;
  • a deputy district attorney;
  • the director of the Mesa County Criminal Justice Services Department;
  • a judicial administrator;
  • a county data analyst; and
  • the contracted local initiative coordinator.

MESA COUNTY’S CHANGE TARGETS

In addition to the change efforts highlighted in this case study, the Mesa County EBDM Policy Team also:

  • developed a pilot court that applied principles of evidence-based decision making in drug cases to contribute to recidivism reduction;
  • revised the Pre-Sentence Investigation Report (PSIR) and standard conditions of probation to align with evidence-based principles; and
  • adopted and normed the Hawaii Proxy risk tool for use in front-end decision making (e.g., summons/arrest decisions, jail intake) and a variety of post-sentencing program decisions (e.g., prison diversion, etc.).

Mesa County’s EBDM policy team started along the Phase II planning roadmap to assess the degree to which research evidence guided their decisions, and to identify strengths, challenges, and targets for future policy and practice change. The system mapping exercise was critical in developing a shared understanding of the criminal justice system and in identifying the problems and barriers that required further exploration and data collection. A remarkably large number of system actors participated in the system mapping process, including public and private defense counsel, deputy prosecutors, county and district court judges, probation and community corrections officers, and jail and court staff.

Ten months into their EBDM planning work, the Mesa County EBDM Policy Team agreed to a set of change targets and developed logic models and detailed implementation plans. This case study provides a review of Mesa County’s Phase II/III efforts as they relate to the following change targets:

  • integrating the use of risk and need information in decision making across the criminal justice system, including at the pretrial stage; and
  • redesigning community intervention options, including the conduct of a risk and needs analysis of felony and misdemeanant populations and the development of a sentencing guide.

For more information on the full range of change targets developed by Mesa County, see their Phase III implementation plan.

  • “We are very satisfied and, indeed, appreciative of the many reforms that have been implemented through the Mesa County EBDM pretrial process. As a member of our EBDM pretrial committee, I can attest to the fact that this has been a collaborative systemwide effort involving representatives of the district attorney’s office, the local defense bar, the judiciary, the sheriff’s department, and our Criminal Justice Services Department. We believe that our system is significantly enhanced because of our utilization of a risk-based pretrial assessment. Our pretrial program is no longer largely dependent on an offender’s ability to pay money in order for that offender to bond out of jail. Overall, we do a much better job of releasing pretrial low risk offenders and keeping high risk offenders in detention.”
    —Rich Tuttle, Assistant District Attorney, Mesa County

    Prior to EBDM, justice system professionals (i.e., pretrial services staff, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges) relied on a non-validated risk assessment, as well as their experience and judgment, to determine the level and type of pretrial risk a defendant posed. The EBDM policy team established a multidisciplinary pretrial committee to review the available research on pretrial practice and build a foundation for their work together. An early step involved the careful crafting of a philosophy statement about pretrial practices and the development of agreements around issues such as how best to use risk information within the context of a money-based system. Ultimately, the pretrial committee recommended to the EBDM policy team the adoption of a validated pretrial risk assessment to inform pretrial release decisions, bond conditions, and supervision level.

    Based on its review of a number of assessment tools and the specific needs of county stakeholders, the team decided to implement the Colorado Pretrial Assessment Tool (CPAT), an empirically based risk assessment developed and validated in ten counties in Colorado, including Mesa County. 1 The policy team agreed that use of the tool would provide judges with important information to better mitigate risk for failure to appear and new criminal activity during the pretrial period.

    In January 2015, Mesa County implemented a decision guideline, or “matrix,” for bond decisions. The bond guidelines are based on a combination of the CPAT risk level and the nature of the defendant’s offense category. A significant change adopted by the Mesa County EBDM Policy Team was the elimination of money ranges from the bond guidelines.

    Mesa County also developed a praxis to guide decisions about the appropriate level of supervision during pretrial. The SMART Praxis provides a recommended supervision level (e.g., court reminder calls only, basic, enhanced, intensive) based on risk level and crime type. The tool was first implemented in July 2012 and was later updated in January 2015.

    Building on the supervision matrix, in 2013 the Mesa County EBDM team developed guidelines for structured responses to pretrial violations. The pretrial violations response guide provides presumptive guidelines for noncompliance based upon two factors: supervision level (identified by the SMART Praxis) and violation severity (i.e., minor, moderate, severe). While low and moderate level responses are generally handled internally by pretrial officials, high level responses result in notification to external parties, such as the district attorney and defense counsel. Judges are notified at the discretion of the district attorney (e.g., during court proceedings or if the district attorney requests a warrant).

    1 The Colorado Pretrial Assessment Tool (CPAT) was developed with assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Pretrial Justice Institute.

     

    RESULTS

    An analysis of data through 2015 indicates an 85% concurrence rate between the Mesa bond guidelines and judges’ decisions, representing a significant shift in judicial decision making practices. In 2011—prior to the changes under the EBDM initiative described above—65% of Mesa County defendants were released on cash/surety bonds, while 30% were released on their own recognizance (PR). By 2016, this pattern was reversed, with only 38% of defendants released on cash bonds and the majority of defendants (62%) released on PR bonds. Other key outcomes include the following:

    • In 2016, while 45% of the population booked into the jail were lower risk on the CPAT, only 21% of the defendants actually held in jail following the pretrial hearing were lower risk.
    • Approximately 82% of Mesa County’s jailable pretrial population is given a summons at arrest or released on a PR bond at first appearance; an additional 8% are released on a secured bond. This means that 90% of Mesa’s jailable population is released pretrial, while only 10% are unable to post bond pretrial.
    • The increased use of Release on Own Recognizance (PR) bonds did not reduce public safety rates over time for the pretrial supervised population. While PR bond rates at first appearance more than doubled from 2011 to 2016, public safety rates (no new arrests in the pretrial period) for the supervised pretrial population have improved over this same time period.
    • Finally, analysis of pretrial success rates by risk level indicate that the CPAT provides predictive accuracy for the Mesa County population.

    In 2013, Mesa County received the National Association of Counties (NACo) Achievement Award for its Evidence-Based Pretrial Project.

  • Early in their EBDM planning process, Mesa County officials expressed a desire to incorporate evidence-based practices into sentencing decisions to ensure the most efficient use of sentencing resources and improve risk reduction outcomes. The Mesa County EBDM Policy Team formed a Community Interventions Committee to collect information about the purpose and use of the sentencing options available locally and to make improvement recommendations to the policy team. The committee began by conducting a survey of judges, prosecutors, defenders, and other justice system stakeholders. The survey revealed considerable variation in stakeholders’ understanding of the purpose of, and services delivered by, the available sentencing options. As a result, the committee engaged in extensive work to carefully describe each option, including assessing, where possible, the risk and needs of the population and the specific program content and intervention approaches used, and documenting other factors such as program duration and cost. The committee then reviewed the research related to the effectiveness of each option, contrasted research findings with local practice, and identified concerns to be addressed. The committee also worked with a number of external experts to create a construct for matching programs to offenders.

    RESULTS

    This work culminated in the development of a comprehensive sentencing guide. The effort was a critical part of aligning Mesa County’s array of dispositional options with evidence-based practices. The guide relates sentencing options to risk reduction; it does not attempt to address the other legitimate purposes of sentencing such as punishment, deterrence, and protection of the public. It describes all local sentencing options, including financial penalties, unsupervised probation, diversion, deferred judgment, in-home detention, day reporting, probation, work release, community corrections, jail, and prison. The guide identifies the primary purpose of each option (accountability/monitoring, behavior change with accountability and monitoring, incapacitation, and alternatives to incapacitation), the risk level ideally served by the option, each option’s capacity to address criminogenic needs, and per day cost. The guide also reports programmatic data, including successful completion rates, escape/abscond rates, safety rates (defined as no arrests during the program period), and recidivism rates (defined as new charge filings within one year of program discharge).

    The sentencing guide has improved awareness among justice stakeholders of the purpose and design of the various sentencing options available in Mesa County. Since its data is updated annually, it is particularly useful to stakeholders’ efforts to understand programs, target populations, and outcomes. 

MOVING FORWARD

Mesa County officials continue to promote EBDM and share their experiences with their in-state colleagues. For example, Mesa County officials have conducted trainings for judges and defense lawyers on smarter sentencing and pretrial justice decision making.

Locally, they continue to collect data and meet annually to review this data and make adjustments to various policies and practices. They are currently in the process of revising the bond guidelines for the second time and intend to release a new version of the sentencing guide to include more specific data about the risk levels of the client population placed in various programs. An updated guide containing these results is expected to be released within the first quarter of 2017.

While there are continued efforts to use both the bond guidelines and the sentencing guide as data-driven decision making tools, county officials indicate an ongoing need to expand their analyses, with a particular interest in understanding the outcomes of the unsupervised pretrial population.