La Plata County Judge Anne Woods has recently come under fire for her “progressive” decisions on bail and sentencing involving violent offenders.
Along with many readers, we winced when reading in the Herald’s Feb. 20 front-page article, “An agent for change,” that Woods favors rehabilitation to jail time for many convicted criminals.
We believe in leniency and sentences focused on rehabilitation for petty crimes such as misdemeanor drug possession and for first-time, nonviolent offenders.
We do not believe in such privileges for those who have physically harmed others or who are credibly accused of having done so.
Woods, 33, who had just five years’ experience as a public defender before Gov. Jared Polis appointed her to fill the vacancy on the county bench last fall, is operating from a very different paradigm.
“You know, this court believes that people deserve a chance to show they don’t present a risk to the community and can comply with court orders,” she said when Assistant District Attorney David Ottman questioned a bail decision she had made.
Ottman had asked for $25,000 bail for Cody Stowe, a man accused of second-degree assault after allegedly breaking a woman’s cheekbone and knocking her unconscious. Stowe was on parole for a similar crime for assault at the time, Ottman said.
It would seem that Stowe already had failed Woods’ test and shown he was indeed a potential danger to the community.
But Woods set bail for Stowe at $5,000.
In our legal system, bail is not intended as a punishment or even as a means of keeping a person accused of a crime in jail pending trial. Instead, bail is intended to ensure the accused person will show up for court; if they don’t, they forfeit the money they have posted.
But for practical purposes, bail often does serve to keep potentially dangerous people in jail until trial. (Bail can also keep marginalized and low-income individuals jailed disproportionately, but that’s a separate issue.)
Bail can be especially key in situations involving domestic violence.
In November, Damon Lamont Mathews of Ignacio was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence against his wife, Rachel Ream. Mathews posted $1,500 bail on Dec. 25. Six days later Ream was killed. He is accused of first-degree murder and other charges in her death.
Woods was not involved in that case, but it is tragically illustrative of the risk of releasing potentially violent people back into the community by setting low bail.
And what about justice?
In her sentencing of Preston Pitcher, a man accused of molesting young adults he had mentored in a church program (Pitcher entered into a plea agreement), Woods had the option of giving him 60 days in jail plus four years’ probation. She gave him probation only.
It was a slap in the face to his victims.
Excessive leniency by a judge in setting bail or sentencing does not inspire the trust of the community. It can be a disincentive for victims to report crimes, since their offenders could be back to hurt them soon. A victim or members of a victim’s family might choose to take the law into their own hands and punish a perpetrator rather than avail themselves of a lenient court. Finally, undue leniency sows seeds of distrust in the criminal justice system as a whole and undermines our democracy.
“People are going to disagree or agree, but I always have the best intentions,” Woods said in explaining her philosophy in the Herald story.
But good intentions alone are insufficient, cautions author Dennis Prager: “Without wisdom, all the good intentions in the world amount to nothing.”