JeffCo DA candidates spar on race, mass incarceration and outside spending

Democrat Jake Lilly and Republican Pete Weir, candidates for District Attorney in Jefferson and Gilpin counties, sparred over issues like mass incarceration, implicit bias and police presence in schools during a public forum last night. Lilly and Weir also reacted to recent reports of big outside money pouring into the race from liberal philanthropist George Soros.

Hosted at Jefferson High School by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, the forum setup gave Lilly and Weir the opportunity to respond to moderator and audience questions, but not to each other. The CCJRC and the candidates expressed a desire to increase public awareness of district attorney races, and pointed out that, four weeks from Election Day, many voters don’t even know that the DA is an elected position.

The debate revealed how deeply divided Lilly and Weir are on questions about criminal justice issues. Weir repeatedly balked at the premise of questions to which Lilly responded with enthusiasm.

A telling example came when an audience member asked to hear the candidates’ plans to lessen the number of black and Latino people in the criminal justice system.

Lilly leaned forward in his seat and said, “This is about implicit bias, and it’s in every single one of us.” He cited differing statistics of racial groups involved in the criminal justice system and referenced The New Jim Crow, a treatise by sociologist Michelle Alexander which argues that mass incarceration is a modern form of racial control.

Weir, however, said that he does not “accept the implication of bias in the criminal justice system.” He continued, “Let’s be honest — overrepresentation is not simply a result of bias. People who are incarcerated have been convicted of a crime. There are additional factors that need to be looked at.”  

Lilly unequivocally endorsed blanket use of body cameras, saying, “body cameras primarily protect the officer.” He said he has witnessed the implementation of body camera policies while working in both Savannah, Georgia and Fort Worth, Texas, and said “almost universally, officers love them.”

Weir had a more measured take, citing his concern that body cameras could impinge on officers’ and victims’ privacy. “This issue is far more complex than just giving money to cops [for cameras],” Weir said. “Jake wants all cops to wear cameras, and that shows a lack of understanding.”

The candidates found common ground on private prisons, both agreeing that they are cost-inefficient and morally dubious. But Weir, who answered the question on private prisons after Lilly, took the opportunity to call his opponent naive, pointing out that transitioning away from private prisons is not within a district attorney’s purview but a matter for the state legislature and the governor.

Over the course of the debate, both candidates referred to recent reports that wealthy philanthropist Soros has poured money into a campaign against Weir.

In his opening statement, Lilly acknowledged the reports of Soros’ spending and disavowed any responsibility for messages that Soros-backed groups are spreading. Soros has reportedly spent $179,000 on radio ads, direct mail campaigns, polling and research against Weir. One of the flyers reads, “Women and children aren’t safe from sexual violence with Pete Weir in charge.”

Weir has been outspoken on the subject, repeatedly denouncing Soros for meddling from out of state. Toward the end of the forum, he said that he “would like to hear a repudiation” of the messages from Lilly. Lilly did not provide one.

After the forum, The Colorado Independent asked Lilly whether he could have held his positions on implicit bias and mass incarceration two or four years ago. “Well, I could have mentioned it, but it may not have helped me win,” Lilly said.
For his part, Weir thinks Lilly is naive for thinking that too many people are caught up in the criminal justice system. “I can’t speak for other states, but here, you have people that have worked their way into the system,” Weir said. “They’ve either committed violent crimes or nonviolent offenders have had multiple felony convictions. So it’s really a fallacy.”

Photo Credit: CAIVP, Creative Commons, Flickr