The Fremont Correctional Facility in Cañon City is one of the first prisons in the country to experiment with virtual reality for reentry.

(Meredith Turk/CPR News)

Colorado’s two state attorney general candidates agree the state’s criminal justice system needs improving — but they fundamentally disagree on the actual problem.

Democratic candidate Phil Weiser thinks there are too many people in jails and prisons. He supports diversion programs for drug addicts and those with mental illness. Weiser also wants to reform cash bond so people who can’t afford to post bonds don’t stay in jail longer than they should. 

Weiser also supports suing the manufacturers of opioid drugs in hopes of receiving settlement money that could go to building rehabilitation centers.

“You put someone in prison who doesn’t need to be there because they’re not a threat to public safety, and it could have been done another way, shame on you,” said Weiser, a former dean of the University of Colorado law school. “If you define justice as put people away as long as possible, I don’t define justice that way.”

Republican candidate George Brauchler calls the number of people in jails and prisons a byproduct of bigger problems in the criminal justice system. Brauchler said just letting incarcerated people out of jail is like fixing the tires of a car when there are bigger problems with the engine.

“I think when we talk about criminal justice reform at the national level, too much focus is on, ‘Well the problem are police and district attorneys and what we need to do is figure out ways to deprive them of more discretion,’—as if reducing the number of people in jail is a measure of justice or public safety,” said Brauchler, the Arapahoe County district attorney. “It’s neither.” 

Brauchler wants state lawmakers to evaluate sentences every eight to 10 years and make them more consistent with current realities. He notes this may result in fewer people in jail and prison.

“What should the penalty for DUI be? What are we doing for domestic violence? Do we have mandatory prison for this charge,” he said. “We should continue to have an ongoing conversation.”

Brauchler also wants to evaluate how long felony convictions stay on someone’s permanent record if they go on to contribute to society. He also wants to give cash incentives to public and private prisons for the number of people who leave and do not go on to commit other crimes.

“We have a great criminal justice system, but it’s not perfect,” Brauchler. “And I think if we had to start over from scratch, there are some things we would revisit and the permanence of felony convictions is definitely one of them.”

Weiser thinks the system needs to be more empathetic and compassionate both for defendants and victims.

“The problem is, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Weiser said. “My point is, there are other ways. Let’s take a step back and ask when they’re appropriate.