By Tori Mason

DENVER (CBS4)– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a opportunity to honor what King did for the civil rights movement, but it’s also a chance to reflect on the work that still needs to be done. More than 50 years after his death, America still has a criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts people of color.

The MLK Colorado Holiday commission hosted a virtual panel on Monday to discuss criminal justice transformation.

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“Everyone talks about criminal justice reform. In order for that to be done, there has to be a transformation,” Dr. Vern Howard, chairman of the MLK Colorado Holiday Commission.

The panel was joined by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, newly-elected district attorneys and state prosecutors. The discussion also included those affected by the current criminal justice system

“I want to be able to look at what we do well, but more importantly, where we’re falling short. That second category is long,” said Brian Mason, 17th Judicial District Attorney. “That includes implicit and explicit bias in the criminal justice system, in our charging decisions and in our policing, certainly with regards to bail reform in the over incarceration of Black and Brown people.”

In 2018, Black people accounted for about 5 percent of state residents, but 18 percent of the prison population. Studies found that Black people are more likely to be stopped by the police, charged with more serious crimes and detained pretrial.

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Weiser says the current structure of bail is simple: If you’re rich, you don’t sit in jail. If you’re poor, you’re stuck.

“The longer people stay in jail, pending their trial and not been convicted of anything, the more likely they are to actually commit future crimes,” said Weiser. “How do we figure out who’s really a risk and who might hurt somebody if we let them out, versus, who’s a trustworthy person. Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding. Who knows what it is, but they don’t need to have their life sidetracked and undermined because they’re poor.”

Newly-elected 18th District Attorney John Kellner says it’s time to redefine what success means as a prosecutor. He says adjusting that mindset is the quickest way they can help bring change.

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“It’s saying ‘Hey look, there’s another path here that doesn’t involve a criminal record, but it might involve some restorative justice or rehabilitation.’ It’s coming up with the least impactful, least harsh sanction to help ensure public safety,” said Kellner.

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For more information about efforts to reform criminal justice in Colorado, visit ccjrc.org.

Tori Mason