Unintended consequences 

Momentum building to reform 'fast-track' prosecution

No one ever claimed that Kathy Carlin committed physical violence against anyone.

And yet, she was arrested at her home on May 1 and hauled off to the El Paso County Jail, where she was forced to spend the night, ineligible to post bond until the next day.

On Tuesday, Carlin pleaded guilty in County Court to domestic violence and was sentenced to two years' probation, with six months' deferred sentencing and a mandatory domestic-violence evaluation. She took the plea, she says, because she broke the law by writing a letter to an estranged former partner, who had gotten a restraining order against Carlin for allegedly making "threatening" statements.

Carlin, who says she's never even gotten a traffic ticket before, denies having threatened her ex-partner. But either way, simply writing a letter shouldn't earn her a record as a violent criminal, she says.

"I am guilty," Carlin said, "but I am not guilty of violence."

Nor should it have been necessary, she says, for her to be led away in handcuffs and thrown in jail overnight.

"It was just horrible," Carlin said of the experience. "I was humiliated."

Carlin isn't the first to criticize El Paso County's system of domestic-violence prosecution, known as "fast track." Under the system, those who are arrested must spend a night in jail. Most are taken straight from jail and into a courtroom the next day, where prosecutors try to persuade the still-handcuffed defendants into signing plea bargains without having had a chance to speak with a defense lawyer.

Many defendants have complained of feeling coerced into signing pleas, and defense lawyers say the bond restrictions, as well as the absence of any defense counsel during the process, violate defendants' constitutional rights. (The Independent's initial coverage of the system, "Railroaded," appeared last Aug. 15 and can be read online at www.csindy.com.)

However, Carlin is the first defendant to launch an effort to fix what she thinks is wrong with the process. Since she got out of jail, she has regularly picketed outside the courthouse, gathering petition signatures and thumbs-up from sympathizers. She is forming an organization called Citizens Against the Domestic Violence Laws, and she has printed bumper stickers for the cause.

Of course, domestic abusers should be punished, Carlin says. But she believes the fast-track system, implemented in the wake of a domestic-violence crackdown by the state Legislature in the mid-1990s, may have gone too far and is sweeping up defendants who are either nonviolent or innocent.

She isn't likely to get much sympathy from local prosecutors and judges, who have steadfastly defended the existing system, saying swift accountability helps prevent abusers from re-offending.

Outside of those circles, however, Carlin's campaign appears to coincide with a growing sense that the "get tough" approach might have had unintended consequences.

A leading statewide group tracking domestic-abuse issues, the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence, has voiced concerns that the fast-track system appears to be causing increased convictions of women, some of whom may actually be the victims of abuse rather than the perpetrators.

And last week, Bill Cadman, a Republican state representative from Colorado Springs, told the Independent he's considering introducing reforms at the state level.

Like the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Cadman says he's concerned that mandatory-arrest laws often lead to police jailing the person who was actually abused. Sometimes, it may be a woman who was defending herself against an abuser, he says.

"Anytime the system is working against the people it's supposed to protect, you've got huge problems," Cadman said.

--Terje Langeland


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