Colorado AG Phil Weiser talks mental health awareness and student loan reform
Glenwood Springs Post Independent reporter Jessica Peterson spoke with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser this week about recent events and how he plans to proceed in his role under the new administration. Weiser talked about his interest in reforming the student loan process and how reversing the stigmatization of mental health is a necessary component to both police reform and seeing fewer deaths from gun violence.
How has the landscape changed as an Attorney General since the Biden administration took over?
“My approach to the federal government is the same which is I seek to collaborate and solve problems. In the prior administration, there were times when that was able to work. We worked on robocalls together effectively, on issues around (financial technology) and new forms of lending. … Unfortunately there were a range of other issues including issues like student debt or the Affordable Care Act where I was forced to sue the administration to protect Colorado and defend the rule of law. That’s the same standard I have, which is can I collaborate with the federal government or if they do things that violate the rule of law and hurt Colorado then do I need to sue. I haven’t had to sue the new administration yet but I’m ready to if I need to.”
I know especially since the previous administration appointed many conservative judges that that could have posed a challenge or carried over, but I guess you haven’t experienced that yet?
“… A case this year to keep an eye on is the case involving the Affordable Care Act. We have 400,000 Coloradans who have health insurance because of the Medicaid expansion. 700,000 Coloradans who have protections for pre-existing conditions. The Supreme Court, the new Supreme Court is set to consider that. I like our chances. I believe that the arguments on the other side, initially from the past administration, also from some other states are just wrong. So I’m comfortable with our position, I’m confident we’ll be able to prevail there.”
The homicide rate is currently the highest it’s been since 1995, do you think this is an anomaly or the start of a trend for Colorado?
“We need to study and understand what’s happening in terms of criminal activity and what we learn from the data. Being in a pandemic poses massive challenges on so many levels. The risks we have is that we both either ignore new developments including criminal activity, including mental health, including substance abuse. The other risk is that we are too quick to draw our own conclusions. I’m concerned by rising crime rates, both violent crime rates as well as property crime rates, and I want to make sure that we’re understanding what’s going on and be smart about how we address it.
Talking about the mental aspect of that, how much do you think the (rate) ties into the need for gun control reform?
“We have a few different related public health challenges. One public health challenge is to destigmatize mental health. To enable people to open up about their struggles to get the support they need. … We operate a program called Safe to Tell in our office and that program has worked on destigmatizing mental health by saying it’s okay to admit you’re struggling. Another challenge related to mental health is the connection to the criminal justice system and what often is called the school to prison pipeline. When young people are suffering and experiencing trauma acting out, how do we treat it. … We want to support more diversion programs to give young people alternatives to being put into the juvenile justice system.
Some of those programs you mentioned outside of the juvenile system or the detention system, what do those look like?
“We are going to announce today a partnership with United Health, and I believe it’s a $1.8 million dollar investment in the Colorado Youth Conservation Corps. And what this does is give young people and their families a choice: either you go into the juvenile justice system or we’re going to let you spend a summer working in some outdoor activity. Could be on a farm, could be an outdoor recreation activity, getting you engaged constructively, productively and in an environment that we believe can give people a fresh start.”
My next question is about student loans and the coalition you’re leading. I know you all just sent the letter to the U.S. Secretary of Education, but why is this important to you and what other actions do you plan on taking?
“Thanks for asking about this. A couple of responses, first, back to where I started with the new administration. We want to collaborate with them to solve problems. That was the spirit of this letter, outlining a series of efforts we can work together. If I have to sue this new administration on these issues we will. … My commitment is to protect students not to be taken advantage of. … I was the Dean of University of Colorado Law School and I got to see student debt firsthand and the stressors and strains it puts on people. And we lowered student debt from $116,000 per graduating law student down to $100,000. Which is still a lot of money. … The difficult choices students are having to make because of debt pains me, and I want to do all we can to support our students.”
Colorado’s cultures can vary drastically based on a rural community to a more metro area. Are you anticipating any pushback from the more rural areas who might not be as familiar about these kind of conversations (about police reform)?
As Attorney General I’m committed to showing up everywhere and to addressing concerns. Explaining how we’re protecting all the people of Colorado and what works. I recognize that different communities face different issues and issues in rural communities that are important to me is that we don’t have unfunded mandates from Denver that affect criminal justice. For example, it is important that we create opportunities for drug treatment in rural areas just like it’s important to create in rural areas. I’m very focused on everyone being served and I don’t believe making the criminal justice system work in Aurora or Denver is inconsistent with making it work here in Glenwood Springs and Rifle. So I’m going to keep all communities in mind and keep working to improve our criminal justice system and our current legal system to protect everybody.
When you talk about these mental health programs and police reform, witness identification, how are you planning on addressing the Latino community or non-English speakers who also are privy to these issues just as much?
We hired for the first time a Spanish language outreach director at the department of law. In fact, tomorrow I’m going to be back here with her at the YouthZone. Ana is our Spanish language outreach director and she and I are doing an event today in Grand Junction with their Hispanic Affairs project.
Will she serve as a translator for you primarily?
“She’ll both serve as a translator for me and she’ll build relationships so that all communities can benefit whether its student lenders or issues around law enforcement, or issues around protecting air quality. We want to make sure that all Coloradans are protected.”
Reporter Jessica Peterson can be reached at 970-279-3462 or email@example.com.
Next week, crews will begin making improvements to the Roaring Fork Whitewater Park in Basalt, including tweaks to the waves, installing a boardwalk and upgrades to the Fisherman’s Park boat ramp.
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