Ninth District Attorney Jeff Cheney seeks two new prosecutors to keep up with growing caseload |

Ninth District Attorney Jeff Cheney seeks two new prosecutors to keep up with growing caseload

Ninth District Attorney Jefferson Cheney speaks before the Garfield Board of County Commissioners on Monday, July 19, 2021.
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An already difficult staff-to-caseload ratio in the Ninth District Attorney’s Office became even worse with the past year’s COVID-19 restrictions, District Attorney Jefferson Cheney said.

Cheney was before the Garfield County commissioners last week with a plea for two new prosecutors, an additional investigator and one new support staffer. He also requested an accompanying wage boost across the board.

The move is necessary to hang onto the prosecution team he has and attract qualified attorneys to the district, Cheney said.

With a current backlog of 147 jury trials in the three-county judicial district, and only one felony and one misdemeanor trial allowed at a time, the need for more staffing is imperative, he said during the July 19 Board of County Commissioners meeting.

While the pandemic added to the caseload, the staffing problem existed even before that, Cheney said.

“We need two more prosecutors, and the reality is we needed them 10 or 15 years ago,” he said.

As it stands, “Our prosecutors are overwhelmed and they are underpaid.”

Cheney presented starting salaries for his office compared to other district attorney’s offices in Colorado. While many pay a starting annual salary around $70,000, the Ninth District ranges from $58,000 to $64,000.

A felony-level deputy district attorney can make upwards of $80,000 to $100,000 in some Colorado districts.

The Ninth District, which includes Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties, pays $75,000 to $79,000 for that same level of prosecutorial experience, Cheney said.

He said he plans to approach the other two counties to support the same staffing request, and hopes to have all three counties on board as part of the 2022 budget process — if not sooner on an emergency basis.

To buy some time and save some money, Cheney said he took on the Rio Blanco docket for 10 months. But that came at the expense of not moving several other initiatives forward, such as a restorative justice program and more criminal justice diversion options.

“The ethical standards that we try to uphold are just not being met with the caseload-to-person ratio we have,” he said.

Cheney pointed to American Bar Association standards suggesting prosecutors handle no more than 150 felonies or 300 misdemeanors per year. Local prosecutors now juggle well over 200 active felony cases at a time, “sometimes 275 to 300,” or double that recommended number of misdemeanors, he informed the commissioners.

“I can only give so many locker room pep talks about purpose and meaning,” Cheney said. “We’re doing the best we can, and we’re not keeping up.”

He added, “When we have the resources that we need we make better decisions … we get better justice for victims, and we make better decisions with respect to accused people.”

Garfield commissioners were generally supportive of the request, but indicated that it would either involve a budget adjustment for this year, formal consideration as part of the upcoming 2022 budget process, or a combination of both.

Some American Rescue Plan dollars related to COVID-19 impacts may also be made available to defray some of the specific expenses associated with the pandemic impacts, county budget officials said.