The usual suspects — back in jail again and again

Ruben Chavez III
Staff Photo |

For some, a trip to the Garfield County Jail is just the wake-up call they need to stay out of trouble in the future. Others are less easily convinced.

Ruben “Plucky” Chavez III missed his court appearance first thing April 28 and, due to miscommunication, didn’t make it up to the courtroom when he arrived just after noon. Instead, authorities allege, he followed his ex-girlfriend around town in his black Chevy Blazer, hitting at least two cars in the process.

The incident netted Chavez, 21, of Rifle, his fifth active criminal case and prompted police to issue a warrant for his arrest. He was picked up a week later and issued a $22,500 bond — a little more than twice that in his previous case.

The same day, an investigator with the district attorney’s office discovered that Chad Boulter, who had been released two days before to await sentencing for manufacturing methamphetamine, was buying ingredients that could be used to make more of the stimulant. He was arrested May 7 and issued a $15,000 bond — 10 times what he was released on two weeks before.

Chavez and Boulter aren’t the first to rack up several cases before the first even goes to trial. Micah Smith, 35, of Glenwood Springs, has been arrested 42 times since 1997 — although he has nothing pending at the moment.

“It’s frustrating when we arrest people and put them to jail only to find that they’re back out again before we’re finished doing our paperwork,” said Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario. “It’s a never-ending argument. Do you lock them up or throw away the key, or provide services to rehabilitate?”

Although it sometimes seems like they’re dealing with the same 10 percent of the population 90 percent of the time, Vallario emphasized that repeat offenders are the exception, not the rule.

“Most people that are in jail, most people that we contact, they’ve made bad choices — they’re not necessarily bad people,” he said, “Then there are some people that just cannot live in the box lawmakers have built for society.”

The issue is far from unique to the area, Glenwood Springs Police Chief Terry Wilson observed.

“It’s a clash of philosophies, and right now the system leans toward fixing someone instead of incarcerating them,” he said. “In some cases, they may have some success. In others, they’re barking up the wrong tree.”

According to Wilson, rehabilitation is most effective with younger suspects facing their first or second offense.

“It’s very difficult to change long-term behaviors,” he said.

Garfield County is a little unusual in one respect.

“In most county jails, somewhere between 30 to 35 percent of your total population are sentenced inmates, and ours generally is skewed more towards the pretrial,” Vallario explained. “Anybody that’s there for pretrial is still innocent until proven guilty.”

That’s where the double edged sword of bond comes into play.

While a jury must consider the facts of only the case at hand in rendering a verdict, the judge is free to factor criminal history into sentencing and setting bond. A suspect who has failed to appear in the past often pays more to be released than someone with a similar charge but a first offense. Barring first-degree murder cases, rare here, most defendants at least have an opportunity to bond out while they await trial.

“Bond is a right, it’s not a privilege, but not everybody has the ability to post it,” explained Rob McCallum, public information officer for the Colorado Judicial Department.

According to McCallum, most bond agents require a suspect to put up around 10 percent of the bond before they can be released. The court can also opt for a personal recognizance bond, which requires no cash up front but sets a fine if the defendant doesn’t show up for court.

“It gives them the ability to conduct their life until they have their day in court,” McCallum explained.

According to Public Defender Tina Fang, that actually improves their odds of avoiding trouble in the future.

“When people are in jail, they lose their houses, they lose their families, they lose hope and the prospects for rehabilitating them go out the window,” she said. “If you over-supervise someone, you can actually create a worse scenario. One of the things they’ve found that is the most effective way of getting people to court is a reminder phone call.”

Garfield County is looking at doing just that, and is also preparing to revamp the bond process by implementing the Colorado Pretrial Assessment Tool (CPAT), which assesses suspects’ risk of failing to appear or reoffending.

Wilson isn’t sure a test can do that.

“Human beings are extremely complex,” he said. “Trying to find equity in the criminal justice system is a difficult, maybe impossible mission.”

“I believe that our system of justice was founded on the premise that a group of ordinary citizens are going to hear everything and make a common sense decision, but that has been lost in the world of lawyers and loopholes,” he added. “Personal accountability and responsibility are not values we hold as highly as we did in the past. We’re so focused on individual rights we’re forgetting about the part where we’re supposed to protect the community.”

Still, he’s willing to admit that his is only one point of view.

“After 32 years, I’ve settled myself with the idea that we’re going to see the ideal outcome differently than the DA or the public defender or probation,” he said.

“There’s different pieces of the puzzle,” Vallario agreed. “We do our job, the courts do theirs.”

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