Sixth Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne, who is running uncontested in November’s election, said during the next four years he plans to continue working on restorative justice programs, taking serious cases to trial and rooting out racial inequality in the criminal justice system.
Champagne, a Democrat, was first elected in 2016 after serving as an assistant district attorney since 2009, and before that, working as a public defender in Durango. The 6th Judicial District covers Archuleta, La Plata and San Juan counties.
When Champagne first campaigned, he promised to promote restorative justice practices in favor of harsh jail sentences.
Several local defense attorneys did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer said he was unable to comment about a political office.
Bobby Duthie, who has practiced criminal law for 38 years, said it can be difficult for a district attorney’s office to balance restorative and punitive punishments. Many times, community members are quick to criticize the office for granting certain plea agreements, he said.
“But the system would screech to a halt if they tried every case,” Duthie said. “It’s a matter of working out something that’s reasonable ... based on the circumstances.”
In his estimation, Duthie said Champagne does an admirable job given the inherent challenges of the job.
“I think he’ll continue to evolve and get stronger,” he said.
In an email interview with The Durango Herald, Champagne spoke about his accomplishments and the plan for the next four years, after which he will be term-limited.
How have you promoted restorative justice?
A: In addition to our restorative justice program, our traffic safety program, and our substance abuse treatment programs, we have added a mental health specific diversion program, helping people get access to mental health services and treatment, and we are getting ready to roll out a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, where officers can directly refer folks into diversion instead of filing criminal charges with the court.
Has restorative justice been successful?
A: Since 2016, we have served almost 1,500 people, with an almost 80% successful completion rate. Of those who successfully complete, the 1-year non-recidivism rate is 91% and the three-year non-recidivism rate is 93%.
Reducing jail populations has been a top priority, how has your office worked for this goal?
A: Case filings are a better way to analyze the DA’s office’s role in the criminal justice (system), especially felony case filings, which (are) controlled exclusively by this office (whereas misdemeanors can be filed by numerous different agencies). Our overall case numbers are down significantly after a spike in 2018. Total cases filed: 3,865 in 2017; 4,176 in 2018; 3,713 in 2019.
How do you balance restorative vs. punitive punishments?
A: Our goal is to avoid jail and prison if at all possible. I believe incarceration is not an effective way to change behavior, and prefer to focus on rehabilitation in lieu of punitive sanctions. However, when truly dangerous offenders harm others in our community, sometimes we have no other choice and must remove them from our community to prevent future harm.
Is the crime rate increasing or decreasing in La Plata County?
A: While felony filing has been increasing at an alarming rate across Colorado from 2015 to 2018, our numbers in La Plata County have increased at a much lower rate, and have actually turned around and begun dropping again since 2018 to the point where we are projected to be below the 2015 level.
Are you taking more cases to trial?
A: We have made a point to take more cases to trial than in the past. Prior to taking over in 2017, trials were less frequent, roughly 15 to 25 per year. However, in 2017, we took 40 cases to trial; in 2018, we took 38 cases to trial; and in 2019, we took 48 cases to trial. Trials are important in the individual sense as it gives the defendant the right to present their case to a jury and have their civil liberties protected and upheld in the truth seeking process. In the larger sense, it shows the community that we are willing to be courageous in our fight for justice and not back down just because trials are uncertain and resource intensive.
How many have resulted in mistrials?
A: Of the 140 trials held since I began in January 2017, we have had 13 mistrials. Almost all have been from hung juries, with one relating to a witness stating something improper while testifying.
How is your office dealing with racial inequality in the criminal justice system?
A: In 2018, we conducted an in-depth analysis along racial lines and found that although Hispanics and Native Americans make up only about 18% of our population (African Americans are statistically so small a percentage of the population of the 6th Judicial District, that it is almost impossible to get accurate data), they are much more likely than whites to be arrested instead of given a ticket (36% of all arrests), be charged with a crime (37% of all charges filed) and are more likely to receive a sentence to jail/prison (13% for whites, 23% for Hispanics/Native Americans) instead of community supervision (74% for whites, 66% for Hispanics/Native Americans).
To that end, we have focused on training, conducting a daylong training on implicit and unconscious biases for the entire office in 2019, and in 2020, we are looking forward to another daylong training focusing on historical trauma of Native American and Indigenous peoples in America. We must continue to educate our ourselves, become aware of our biases, which we all have, and understand how they impact our decisions and the outcomes of the criminal justice system to reduce these disparate impacts.