COLORADO SPRINGS — It’s a Wednesday morning and the line outside the El Paso County Judicial Building wraps around the block. The entrance is like an airport — two security-checkpoint officers are telling people to empty their pockets and remove their belts as they shove plastic trays onto a conveyor belt.
Felony drug possession and distribution cases more than doubled from 2012 to 2017 here in Colorado’s 4th Judicial District, even while arrests for drug-related crimes and violent offenses barely budged.
Rep. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat running for state Senate, said a variety of reasons could explain the line outside the courthouse. But he worries it’s emblematic of a trend he’s seeing across the state — district attorneys are filing more drug possession cases, sometimes leading to imprisonment.
“Putting people in prison for possession and use of drugs, particularly if it rises out of addiction, is not a productive or effective way of dealing with the problem,” Lee told The Colorado Independent.
Criminal justice reform is a top priority for Lee, a 71-year-old former defense attorney. In a bid for the upper chamber, he is facing off against Republican Pat McIntire, a 34-year-old political newcomer who feels Denver politicians have forgotten about the Springs.
Like Lee, McIntire said he is a “believer in restorative justice” — getting people with substance use and mental health disorders into treatment rather than prison. “The environment in prison can be adverse to helping these individuals,” McIntire said. “I do believe that we are imprisoning too many people.”
The El Paso County courthouse is in the center of Senate District 11, an urban area that mostly overlays Colorado Springs, stretching south to Stratmoor and northwest to Manitou Springs. The seat was vacated by Sen. Mike Merrifield, a Democrat from Manitou Springs, and is considered somewhat competitive given the district’s large percentage of unaffiliated voters — 41 percent.
Still, the district is an island of blue in El Paso County, and has been held by Democrats since 2007. Because of that, it’s attracted relatively little money from outside groups hoping to sway the balance of power at the Capitol in Denver.
Of Colorado’s Senate’s 35 seats, 17 are up for election. Republicans currently hold ten, Democrats hold six, and an independent holds one.
If McIntire pulls off an upset victory, it could help Republicans maintain their single-seat majority of 18 in the 35-member upper chamber.
In 2010, after a stint with retirement and a failed bid for the state Senate, Lee ran again and landed a seat in the House. Four terms later, he’s campaigning for the upper chamber with a relaxed familiarity. During breakfast outside Poor Richard’s Restaurant in Colorado Springs, he grabbed yard signs from the back of his car. They were the same signs he used to run for his seat in the House, but with a fresh sticker that said Senate District 11.
After sifting through his wallet, he references a fine-print list of some of his key legislative accomplishments. Most have to do with reforming the criminal justice system for children and teenagers. He mentions a law that set stricter limits on solitary confinement in the Division of Youth Services, the state’s juvenile correction system. He then championed a law to set up a pilot program to make DYS facilities more home-like and offer trauma-informed care. He said he recently toured the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in Golden, the site selected for a pilot program, and said he was pleased to see floors that were carpeted, pictures on the walls and pillows on the couch. He said in many of these facilities the windows have bars and kids wear scrubs.
There’s still more to do, he said. He wants to ensure that youth are evaluated for substance use and mental health needs before being placed in the system. He also frequently mentions the swelling budget for the Department of Corrections, which has increased approximately 23 percent since 2011, even as the prison population has declined by about 12 percent.
“How about DOC takes some of their money and put it into housing vouchers?” Lee said.
He also wants to help seal certain criminal records so they’re not obstacles for ex-cons seeking to get their lives on track. This would piggyback on a law that expunges mid-level offenses, unless explicitly challenged by a district attorney.
“There is this whole thing called collateral consequences,” Lee said. “We’ve got millions of people with criminal records. That stops them from getting jobs. That stops them from getting housing. It stops them from getting mortgages loans.
“We’re putting impediments on people’s lives.”
McIntire, who co-owns a video production company with his wife Kim, last year worked as an intern for Colorado Springs Republican Sen. Owen Hill. McIntire, who has no prior experience in elected office, calls himself a political outsider.
“I have no interest in making this a career,” he told The Colorado Independent. “I think I provide a unique perspective. I call it the ordinary person perspective.”
His key policy priority is finding money for transportation projects without raising taxes. He supports the Fix Our Damn Roads ballot initiative, but said he has concerns about servicing bonds with the state budget. Instead, he wants to use existing revenue in the state budget and dedicate it to transportation projects.
In the area of criminal justice reform, McIntire said he likes Lee’s idea of giving newly released inmates housing vouchers, but said he’d need more details. Another idea worth a look, McIntire said, would be the obstacles former prisoners face when seeking occupational licenses. Criminal records can disqualify applicants from obtaining them in Colorado.
Said McIntire: “We should focus on barriers for people who are looking to reform their lives.”
Six state Senate races, including SD11, are considered competitive going into the election, together drawing nearly $10 million from outside groups hoping to persuade voters with advertisements.
SD11, however, has drawn relatively little cash from outside groups. Coloradans for Fairness, an independent expenditure committee backing Democratic candidates for the state Senate, has spent nearly $40,000 in support of Lee, who has raised about $140,000, compared to McIntire’s $15,000.
The Democratic advantage in Senate District 11 has grown over the years; today, Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 5,000. Republican rolls have changed little since Merrifield was elected in 2014, following the recall of Democrat John Morse, former president of the Senate, whose vote for a 2013 gun control package drew an intense backlash.
The race will be an uphill battle for McIntire. He said he has personally knocked on about 3,400 doors, while also trying to be a husband, father and business owner. Despite his disadvantage on paper, he says the seat is winnable.
“It is by no means going to be easy,” he said. “We believe there is a groundswell of individuals that don’t believe their voice has been heard in this district.”
McIntire added, “At the end of the day, it’s up to the voters to decide how competitive this district is.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Pat McIntire did not support the Fix Our Damn Roads ballot initiative. He said he does support it, but has concerns about servicing the bonds.