In debate, District Attorney Caloia defends her record
District Attorney Sherry Caloia defended her first term in office at Wednesday’s Issues and Answers forum in Glenwood Springs, saying she has run her office well and that the public should want a prosecutor who challenges police and gives nonviolent offenders second chances.
“We are the stewards of what should go to trial and what should not,” she said.
The debate among Caloia and her opponents, Republican Jeff Cheney and independent Chip McCrory, was one of several campaign discussions during the forum at Glenwood Springs City Hall.
Both McCrory and Cheney are Garfield County attorneys who previously worked as prosecutors in the Ninth Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
The candidates fielded questions about their approaches to plea deals, restorative justice, relationships with local law enforcement and retaining a strong staff.
Concerning her relationship with local law enforcement, Caloia said the publicized battles between her and Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario are purely politics. The two offices otherwise work well together and do their jobs, she said.
In April the Post Independent reported on a flare-up between the two elected officials via email. Vallario believes Caloia inappropriately drops some charges and undercharges some cases. Law enforcement also has complained that Caloia makes it too difficult to get warrants approved.
Caloia, however, stood by her standards for evidence and said she often asks police to do more investigation to build a stronger case.
“I will call the police to task, and that’s what you want in a DA, someone who will give a true and honest review of a case and whether it can be proved in court,” she said.
Cheney said he won’t be a rubber stamp for the police, but he has an ethical and professional obligation to work with them.
A DA can’t afford to have law enforcement that doesn’t trust him or her, he said. From one end of this judicial district to the other, Cheney said he’s been approached by law officers who don’t trust or want to work with the current DA.
McCrory said, “For the last 19 years I’ve been bedeviling the police in this district” as a defense attorney, but he believes he’s maintained the much-needed respect of the police through his work, having gotten client referrals from officers.
With a high turnover at the DA’s office, McCrory asserted that Caloia’s management style must be driving attorneys away, though she challenged that reasoning, saying that it’s typical for young attorneys to work as a prosecutor and leave after only two to four years.
Finding the right plea agreements for the right cases requires that a prosecutor draw from his or her experiences, “and the only way to do that is to try cases in court,” said Cheney.
He emphasized the importance of consulting with victims before extending a plea offer and carefully evaluating the evidence when deciding if a plea offer should be made.
“Most cases are plea bargained. The secret is to know which ones to plea bargain and what is an appropriate plea,” said McCrory. That requires the DA to work with police and the victims and to listen to the defense for details that might change the prosecutor’s decision, he said.
“The sole purpose of the DA is to do justice, not merely to convict,” said McCrory.
Caloia said victims are and have to be notified about plea deals, and while consulting with them is an important step, they don’t dictate when a case goes to trial.
Due to the heavy load of cases that come through the district’s courts, plea bargaining is done regularly. Otherwise you’re wasting a lot of time and resources trying cases with charges you cannot prove, said Caloia. “Sometimes that makes the victims unhappy, but that’s part of the business.”
Speaking on the role of restorative justice programs, Cheney vowed that within the first six months of his time in office that he would establish a restorative justice taskforce to expand its implementation in the judicial district.
Caloia promoted the diversion program and sex assault response team, both of which she has developed during her first term.
Cheney followed by promising also to begin initiating an effective SART program within six months of taking office.
“You know as well as I that if you’re the victim of a crime or the accused, you can’t afford to have an inexperienced prosecutor,” said Cheney.
Caloia said she was elected to bring common sense and good judgment to the DA’s office. “I’m independent, hard-working and not afraid to do the right thing.” She urged voters to support her rather than returning to a rubber stamp for the police.
Said McCrory, “I know the other side of the coin from being a defense attorne.” With 16 years as a prosecutor before his 19 years as a defense attorney, McCrory said, “Combined, they have less experience in the district attorney’s office than I do.”
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