The district attorney of Pueblo County blamed staff vacancies and difficulty in hiring prosecutors on what he described as hostile attitude toward law enforcement since the widespread racial justice protests in the summer of 2020.
"I believe this situation has been largely created by the poisonous attitude towards law enforcement that has been created in the last year and one-half," Jeff Chostner wrote in an email to Chief Judge Deborah Eyler of the 10th Judicial District.
Staffing woes have led him to consider cutting back on operations, Chostner warned in his email, adding he also fears the county will become less safe next year.
Colorado Politics obtained the email, dated Tuesday morning, after Chostner forwarded it to several other people. Chostner, who was first elected to the top prosecutor's job in 2012, declined to comment beyond acknowledging he sent the email.
"This was sent only to fellow attorneys and colleagues in law enforcement," he said.
The email to Eyler mentioned that Chostner's office may pursue fewer charges for certain types of crimes.
"I wanted to advise you that I’ve lost yet another attorney this week, to pursue a career in private practice," he wrote. "This brings my attorney manning down to 16 of 23 attorney authorizations. I anticipate further attorney loses in the near future. I currently have no applicants for any of the jobs and haven’t for the better part of a year."
He described the situation as a recent phenomenon that is common to other prosecutors' offices and police agencies.
"There is a resistance for young attorneys and law school graduates to go into prosecution, that had not previously existed," Chostner told the judge. "But it has escalated so much with regard to prosecutors that I am having to consider cutting back operations with regard to certain categories of crime. I have not made a decision yet, but you need to know that it is under active consideration."
He added: "I fear that Pueblo will be a less safe community in 2022 than it has been in the past."
Eyler did not respond to a request seeking comment on the email.
Not everyone agreed with Chostner's diagnosis of the problem.
Matthew Scott Martin, a Pueblo attorney who practices criminal defense and family law, acknowledged a drop in the number of prosecutors.
But Chostner's explanation "is speculative and not based on empirical evidence. And if I were the chief judge, I would not find his diagnosis to be helpful or relevant," Martin said.
The Colorado District Attorneys' Council, which represents the state's elected prosecutors, affirmed that the problems in Pueblo are real and they exist in other district attorney offices.
"The pandemic took a huge toll on how our judicial system works and prosecutors lost three things that typically make the pressure and challenges of the job worth it: the ability to do trials, cases being resolved with good outcomes rather than settling on pandemic pressured resolutions ... and the camaraderie one finds when working with a team," Tom Raynes, executive director of CDAC, said.
He added that there is "no doubt some in the profession left prosecution feeling disparaged and disheartened from attacks upon the profession that unjustly transferred the wrongdoing of a few to all who honorably serve in law enforcement and prosecution with great integrity."
Chostner's email to the chief judge is consistent with — but more explicit than — what he said in a September interview with KRDO. He attributed staffing problems at the time to the "knock that law enforcement has taken over the last couple of years," and added that his office is not currently turning down cases.
"We are taking a look at attorneys that are maybe in their third year in law school or people who are awaiting bar results. We are going deeper into the job pool," Chostner said.
In Colorado, counties fund the district attorney offices. The state, by comparison, funds the public defender's office. A 2020 budget and salary report from the Office of the State Public Defender found that expenditures for local prosecutors' offices were roughly double that of the public defender statewide.
That was not the case in the 10th Judicial District, where the public defender office had a higher budget than the district attorney. Starting salaries were higher, too, on average, with a deputy public defender earning $5,000 more than a deputy district attorney.
The Office of the State Public Defender declined to comment on Chostner's email.
Stan Garnett, the former district attorney for Boulder County, said the prosecutor's office in Pueblo County has historically had problems and that budgets were part of the issue, but he also pointed fingers at law professors for reportedly portraying prosecutors as "the bad guy."
"Because criminal law is taught based on protecting the rights of defendants, it’s easy to make it look like the prosecution is always the bad guy," he said. "That's just not the case."