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House Judiciary Committee gives initial go-ahead to split up 18th Judicial District

DENVER–The House Judiciary Committee voted to pass a bill to create a 23rd judicial district by dividing up the 18th Judicial District. That district presently includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties.

House Bill 20-1026, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, Rep. Michael Weissman, D-Aurora, Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora and Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs would split off Arapahoe County to ease the caseload on the 18th Judicial District, provide more fair representation in judicial proceedings for residents of the other counties, and relieve some of the tax burden caused by a disproportionate number of prosecutions coming from Arapahoe County.

Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler supports the split. “It’s not just the number of felonies, it’s the quality of the felonies,” Brauchler told the Committee. “Our jurisdiction took to trial 24 first-degree murder cases last year. That’s an appalling number of murders, but it’s a reality. Three or four came out of Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln.”

Brauchler pointed out that the cost of expensive murder trials is shared by all the counties in the district, meaning the taxpayers of the other three counties pay a disproportionate share of those costs for crimes not originating in their counties.

Brauchler said Douglas County population has exploded, and Elbert County is projected to be the fastest growing county through 2050. He also said that Douglas comprises one-third of the district’s population while Arapahoe contributes two-thirds of the crime.

Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Sharp supported the split.

“Our board is comfortable with the policy change to separate Arapahoe County from Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties,” said Sharp. “Our population is about 640,000 now and we are growing and anticipate in the next ten years to have about 800,000 living in Arapahoe County.”

Douglas County Commissioner Laura Thomas represented the Board of County Commissioners in also supporting the split.

“Representative Weissman’s bill is the perfect next step in administering fair and efficient justice for the more than one million citizens who currently call the 18th Judicial District their home,” said Thomas. “The intent is to redistribute the judicial workload in this unique part of the state and to right-size a judicial district that has simply grown too large to effectively and efficiently serve its burgeoning population.”

Thomas said that in 1960 about 127,000 people lived in the entire 18th Judicial District and Douglas County alone has grown from a population of about 4,800 to about 270,000 currently.

The bill doesn’t create the new judicial district until January 1, 2025 and requires that in November 2024 a district attorney is to be elected.

The Legislative Council staff fiscal note estimates that it will cost the state about $2.2 million over the three fiscal years between 2022 and 2025 for one-time information technology costs to establish the necessary computer systems and hire a transition coordinator.

Ongoing costs will be about $1.8 million per year for new staff positions as well as an additional judge.

While no one in the audience spoke against the proposal, Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins voiced the concern that the bill doesn’t include any language about how to resolve conflicts as the process moves forward.

“I do believe there has to be a conflict resolution clause,” said Bockenfeld. “I would never vote for this bill on the floor without it.”

Committee members said there is plenty of time and more hearings to resolve that concern.

The bill passed on an 8-1 vote and heads to the House Appropriations Committee next.

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