Funding for statutorily mandated crime victim services is not keeping pace with needs — and local officials are hopeful of advancing new legislation that will help.
Montrose County Commissioner Keith Caddy is spearheading the efforts on behalf of other elected officials in the geographically vast 7th Judicial District, which encompasses Montrose, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Ouray, San Miguel and Delta counties.
Caddy on Nov. 23 presented a copy of the legislative issue submission now backed by Colorado Counties Inc. to Gov. Jared Polis during the governor’s stop in Montrose.
The submission suggests legislation that would raise certain traffic fines and decriminalize certain traffic offenses — taking them from misdemeanors to infractions — and roll the money from fines back into the counties where the violations occurred. The increased revenue would aid the Victim’s Assistance and Law Enforcement Program, or VALE, and the Crime Victims Compensation Fund, both of which are funded by surcharges for traffic offenses and flow, as grants, to district attorneys offices and other public safety agencies that assist crime victims.
“We’re looking at funding VALE, which is where I would like to go. That’s what we’re hoping to accomplish with this,” Caddy, a former police commander, said Monday. “I think district attorneys offices are underfunded to start with. They need more help.”
Fines for traffic infractions have not been adjusted since 1975, even though Colorado’s population has swelled to 5.6 million since that time, putting more drivers on the roads, requiring more officers writing tickets and more time in court taking care of the violations, the legislative issue paper said.
The current maximum fine for traffic infractions is $100; CCI and legislation backers say that should be adjusted to deter violations. Additionally, the proposal would increase fines for certain traffic misdemeanors that have not changed since the 1990s.
The proposed bill would reclassify as infractions the current misdemeanors of driver’s license offenses (driving without a valid license and related); the first offense of no proof of insurance; and vehicle registration offenses. The proposed legislation would make no change to point assessments against a person’s driver’s license.
A mechanism for paying the fine money directly to counties already exists, the issue paper said.
VALE, which provides grant funding to victims’ services agencies, is authorized to receive up to 37 percent of a given fine paid by those convicted of a traffic misdemeanor or who are fined for a traffic infraction. VALE funds are flat, despite the rise in population, crimes and crime victims.
“The key concept is to start with the reality that fines for traffic infractions have not been adjusted since 1975,” 7th Judicial District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller said. “That’s a starting point. It’s important to recognize how different our world is in 2020 than it was in 1975, considering how many miles are being driven, how many people are here, as well as the cost of living.”
The legislative issue submission paper estimated that more than $13.8 million in fines for traffic infractions was collected by the state in 2018, when it came to the fines paid without the violator going to court. The amount of fines collected from infractions that did wind up being settled in court was not known, nor was the figure from traffic misdemeanors, “thus the fiscal impact is unclear,” the paper said.
Although at most the proposed legislation would double the fine associated with a given infraction or misdemeanor, Hotsenpiller pointed to the Consumer Price Index as a frame of reference — if it were to be used, a $100 fine in 1975 would exceed $450 today. Again, that kind of increase is not envisioned. Each traffic infraction and each traffic misdemeanor carries a specific fine, the maximum of which is $1,000, and Hotsenpiller said backers don’t intend to double the rate of the higher fines. An offense carrying a $100 fine now, though, would become $200, and an offense with a $15 fine would become $30, for example.
Hotsenpiller said VALE and the Crime Victims Compensation Fund are funded by surcharges on most all criminal fines, including traffic misdemeanors, as well as by traffic infractions, the latter of which do not go through the district attorney’s office. The most the surcharge can be is 37 percent of the fine assessed.
Hotsenpiller also said the funding for VALE and the CVCF is flat, with no projected increase from $16 million for at least three years.
“It’s not a lot of money here. That has been true historically since I have been in office (2011); the VALE fund for victim services has been flat, although, with our increase in crime, particularly violent crime, the need for victim services has increased greatly,” he said.
The legislative proposal would, if drafted and passed, bring traffic fines into the 21st century, and along with that, the money from surcharges applied to VALE would increase, the DA said.
“We know that our counties in Colorado bear a substantial burden with respect to state criminal justice demands,” he said.
Counties are required to build and maintain state courthouses, provide funding for DAs and to provide jails, among other costs, and not all of these mandates come with funding.
“This is simply a way of, how can we seek to get a little more resources available for counties to deal with one aspect of criminal justice, which is traffic compliance and enforcement,” Hotsenpiller said.
Because VALE and CVCF are tied to the fines, the increased payments can add up and help victim services, he also said.
“This is not an unfair burden on those individuals in the lower socio-economic strata of our society. We all drive. Almost all of us end up getting that ticket somewhere along the line.
“This is a shared burden than can help us all.”
The proposed legislation is one of only a handful of proposals Colorado Counties Inc. decided to advance, Caddy said.
Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said he is having a bill drafted, based on the issue submission. “I think the goal is to try to take a bunch of burden off the court, by taking some violations to infractions so they don’t go through the court system,” he said. “ … It’s just trying to take some of the pressure off the counties.”