Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Abolitionist Prosecution: a tribute to Christian Champagne


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

June 29, 2016


                Last night my son-in-law, Christian Champagne, was elected District Attorney of the 3rd Judicial District of a three-county area in the southwest corner of Colorado.  He defeated a local tribal prosecutor with over 20 years of prosecution experience at state and federal levels, who accused Christian of being soft on crime, 66-34%.

                Christian (and Jill’s and my daughter Katy) moved to Durango in 2005, when Christian took his first job out of law school at a state public defender.  Three years later, Todd Risberg was elected as a reform district attorney (and re-elected to the second of a two-term limit) and appointed Christian to be his first assistant.  On one hand in his trial work, he has earned support that includes family members of victims of child sexual assault by getting convictions and substantial prison sentences for what ICOPA (International Conference on Penal Abolition) co-founder Ruth Morris called “the dangerous few.”  On the other hand, he has taken the lead in establishing options to incarceration such as pre-trial release screening, restorative justice/mediation programs in courts and in schools, drug courts, and youth programs coordinated by La Plata County Youth Services, now directed by Jill’s and my daughter Katy—all of which serve to keep families together and economically integrated into the community.  As I could see among Christian’s ardent supporters, the prevailing sentiment throughout the judicial district is that people do feel both protected and safer thanks to Todd and Christian’s leadership.

                I am always concerned that diversionary program’s like those in Christian’s district will, in Stan Cohen’s words, ultimately “widen the net” of incarceration, as diversion programs grow to include those who otherwise would not have been prosecuted at all, some of whom “fail” and acquire prior records that subject them to special scrutiny, and so become “recidivists.”  In La Plata County (Durango is the county seat), Todd Risberg’s coming to office coincided with jail monitoring by the county criminal justice coordinating committee, which had tried unsuccessfully to block the building of a new county jail.  Katy tells me that the committee abandoned monitoring the jail population several years ago, shifting priorities to community program development because the new jail had become, as it remains, largely empty, with closed cell blocks.

                Christian’s take on prosecution—that community safety including victim support and protection is his paramount responsibility—brings to mind something of a divide among penal abolition, as reflected in ICOPA 16 just held in Quito, Ecuador:

Political activists for abolishing the inherently racist, classist, ageist state structure called the criminal justice system, including prisoners, are central to all of us in ICOPA.  To me, to borrow Karl Marx’s, their voice and collective power is a vital step toward emancipation from human exploitation, at its worst in mass incarceration.  Political structures both reflect and affect how we define and respond to human differences, to conflict, to violence.  To those whose unwavering focus is on political change, on abolishing the state, to work in or with the system is to be co-opted, and in a case like mine personally, a product of white privilege (as it may well be).

From a political point of view, I myself have continually hypothesized that creating so-called diversion programs to keep people out of jail and prison is potentially counter-productive—that such programs expand further feed the incarceration monster.  I am also an empiricist who allows experience to disconfirm my beliefs, as mass decarceration the district attorney’s office has helped achieve under Todd and Christian’s leadership.

Marx saw political emancipation as a step toward human emancipation from exploitation and violence of us all toward others—emancipation from depending on some of us being entitled to punish or exploit others more than they are entitled to punish or exploit us for our social sins—as a historical step from political to transformation of the culture of power over others into power sharing.  I see political and cultural transformation as interdependent, as in Norway, where sustained mass decarceration in the 19th century followed sustained demilitarization as the Napoleonic War ended and Norway became independent from Denmark, six centuries after Viking colonization had reached its peak.

I think Marx (Chairman Mao in China too, for that matter) was wrong in supposing that political and cultural transformation of oppression and violence are necessarily, historically sequential.  In Norway, for example, low rates of incarceration coincide with democratization of adult-child relations at home and in school (including a ban on corporal punishment by anyone, anywhere).  I postulate that changes in the ways we respond to conflict and violence in any social setting can become well learned and fruitful enough to generalize to any and all of our relations.  So it is that in formally cooperative structures, decision-making can be hierarchical and discipline punitive, while in formally hierarchical organizations, decision-making can be cooperative and discipline restorative.  This is so because in reality there is considerable diversity among us in how we respond to problems we have with each other, although in a political culture as hierarchical and punitive as the US, it is the formally cooperative or democratic structures that are most likely to be corrupted by the drive to establish order of some over others.  Indeed in a political culture where domination and punishment prevail over power-sharing, power corrupts, and in my country, prosecutors are notoriously “tough on crime.”

I am devoted to identifying and celebrating cultural transformation—defiance of political expectations—where I come upon it.  It happens that in US common-law based criminal justice systems, prosecutors occupy the structurally most central, most powerful discretion over whether incarceration grows or declines.  The substantial, continuing mass reduction of incarceration in Colorado’s 3rd Judicial District demonstrates the potential prosecutors have to transform the entire system of incarceration.  It shows that when prosecutors pursue that vision, their constituents become energized to support them, and to become party to making incarceration unnecessary, as they become safer together.  Lo and behold, the kind of prosecution I call peacemaking works.  Prosecutors take note: I can also make you pretty popular in a community that working together, makes you all become safer and more secure.

From the time I became a student public defender in law school until Christian became one, I never imagined I could feel professionally close to and admiring of a prosecutor’s work, one whose professional relations mirror the relations he and Katy have with their children.  What a wonderful surprise.  May the peacemaking path that Todd, Christian and the staff of the district attorney’s office here in southwest Colorado have taken, and the community support they have received, inspire prosecutors elsewhere to do likewise if they have not, and inspire us of the general public to recognize and appreciate those who have.  In prosecution as in everyday relations, peacemaking works, and where it prevails, we decarcerate…and it works for all of us.  Thank you Christian.  Love and peace, hal

1 comment:

  1. The Durango Herald election report for Christian Champagne: