DA Caloia stands by her philosophy
Editor’s note: First of three profiles of candidates for the 9th Judicial District attorney seat.
Through sometimes-vocal criticisms, District Attorney Sherry Caloia has stuck by her principles of leniency for low-level crimes and demanding high standards of evidence.
With her first term as the 9th Judicial District attorney coming to an end, the Democrat Caloia is running for re-election against a Republican, Jeff Cheney, and an independent, Chip McCrory.
She draws a sharp contrast between how she runs the District Attorney’s office and the approach of her predecessor, Martin Beeson. Caloia has said she was asked to run to correct Beeson’s overly aggressive approach.
“My predecessor was very anxious to charge the highest felony he could possibly charge,” she said. “That is one thing I will not do. I want to charge based on the crime itself, and not overreach to get that one level higher.”
She has battled Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario and other law enforcement heads over her demanding standards of evidence for approving search warrants. Judges in the 9th Judicial District require law enforcement to get the DA’s approval before they’ll sign off on them.
Caloia said she’s experienced the wrath of officers who are angry when she asks them to do more work gathering evidence. But she defends her standards, saying she won’t accept a case she doesn’t think can be proved in court.
She’s focused on taking embezzlers to task, including three cases stemming from theft in the Garfield County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.
For the community, it’s an important crime to prosecute, Caloia said, “and I think our citizens deserve someone who can investigate that crime and a prosecutor who can bring it to justice.”
Caloia said she also hasn’t been afraid to shake up the outlying DA’s Offices in Aspen and Rio Blanco County, which she did after taking office.
She also admits she’s criticized as a micromanager, but she doesn’t back down from her assertion that deputy district attorneys, especially young ones, need supervision.
“I want to know what they’re doing and that they’re doing a good job. I will review them, and if they’re not, I will let them know.”
Having developed a diversion program that gives young, first-time offenders (usually young men) with less serious charges a way out of the court system, Caloia said, “I’m not interested in prosecuting these low-level crimes.”
She said 95 percent of people who complete the diversion program aren’t picking up new charges in the following year, she said.
“And when they’re done, they don’t end up with a criminal record. I think that’s tremendously important for our young people because that record will effect them with jobs later in life.”
Currently, about 80 people are in diversion, she said.
Caloia also points to her nearly 30 years of practicing law in the Roaring Fork Valley and how that experience has been a good resource for her deputy district attorneys. In 1988, she was an assistant county attorney. She went into private practice starting in 1990.
Caloia has taken some heat for plea bargains that local law enforcement hasn’t agreed with.
But with upward of 750 felony cases each year and misdemeanor cases in the thousands, plea bargaining is a fact of life, she said.
Plea bargaining is “an absolute necessity for our system, but we try to make it work as best we can. I don’t think the other candidates are going to be able to say any different because of the numbers.”
Even if a case is pleaded down, prosecutors try to find a charge that’s in the same category of crime — breaking and entering and trespassing in place of a burglary charge, for example.
“We do greatly encourage people to get back on track with their lives. And so to the extent that a lesser plea or a deferred judgment or a probation stipulation allows them to do that, then I’ve been successful,” Caloia said.
“My ultimate goal is to get people out of the system and (back to) being a functional human being. My goal is not to get them as many years in prison as I possibly can.”
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The field for three open seats on Aspen City Council in this spring’s election is set at 10 people, most of who are newcomers to Aspen’s political scene. Eight are going for the two council seats and two candidates are vying for mayor.