El Paso County judges have shot down a proposal by local defense attorneys to reform the county court's controversial "fast-track" system for prosecuting domestic-violence defendants.
The judges announced last week that they had unanimously rejected the proposal, which would have allowed those arrested for domestic violence to post bond sooner and obtain legal assistance before meeting with prosecutors.
"We just were not satisfied that there were good reasons" to change the system, said county Judge Barney Iuppa.
Since 1999, people arrested in El Paso County for domestic violence have been barred from posting bond until a judge has advised them of restraining orders against them. This forces defendants to spend a night in jail, because the advisement is given only once a day, on afternoons Monday through Friday.
At the time of the advisement, defendants are taken straight from jail to a courtroom. Once a magistrate has given the advisement, he instructs them to meet immediately with prosecutors, who try to persuade the still-handcuffed defendants to sign plea agreements on the spot.
Members of the local defense bar have complained that defendants have no access to defense attorneys during this process, violating their constitutional right to counsel. The defense lawyers also argue that the arrangement violates the constitutional right to post bond.
Fast-track supporters, meanwhile, argue that those accused of domestic violence should spend a night in jail to "cool down," reducing the risk that they might reoffend against the victim.
To alleviate the constitutional concerns, defense lawyers recently suggested that those arrested be allowed to post bond after watching a videotaped advisement. Defendants arrested on Fridays and Saturdays are already shown a videotaped advisement, so that they won't have to spend two or three nights in jail.
The lawyers also suggested that a defense attorney be allowed to give a group presentation to defendants in fast-track court, to explain their rights.
But Iuppa says statistical evidence doesn't support the notion that defendants are coerced into signing plea bargains. The proportion of people who take the deals hovers around 50 percent the same as before fast-track, he said. And the judges have already offered to let the state public defenders office give a presentation in fast-track court, but the public defenders haven't accepted the offer, Iuppa says.
Doug Miles, the assistant district attorney in charge of fast-track prosecution, said he was pleased with the judges' decision. "We think it's going to keep victims safer," he said.
But Dan Kay, one of the defense attorneys who pushed the proposed changes, complained that the judges made their decision without holding a hearing. He said defense lawyers may still push for changes and have discussed the possibility of filing a lawsuit challenging the system.
"We're going to meet and make a determination of how to proceed," Kay said.