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Attack on the poor or the pursuit of efficiency? Aurora considering getting rid of public defenders.

Aurora considering getting rid of public defenders
Aurora considering getting rid of public defenders 04:22

After 12 years working as a public defender for the State of Colorado, attorney Doug Wilson took over the Aurora Public Defender office in early 2020.

"I came in at a time when the office was in a little bit of a transition," said Wilson. "The office needed some TLC and we turned it into what was, if you at the National Union Defenders Association report,  one of the best municipal public defenders offices in the country."

Doug Wilson CBS

When he retired in July of 2023 the office had an acquittal or dismissal rate of more than 70%. It still does months later.

While in office he protested an effort by Aurora City Council members Dustin Zvonek and Danielle Jurinsky to implement mandatory minimum sentences for auto theft and failure to appear.

He aided the Colorado Attorney General's investigation into the Aurora Police Department, which led to the department agreeing to a consent decree to improve policies and provide more training for officers.

And his office found in more than 200 cases the Aurora City Attorney's office failed to disclose Brady letters that could favor the defense's case.

He says his office was doing what it is supposed to do.

"It's one of the best (public defender) offices I've ever been involved with," said Wilson.

Aurora City Council Member Dustin Zvonek CBS

Now that office may be eliminated. Council member Dustin Zvonek proposed in a council meeting in October of 2023, the council should explore whether the City should contract with outside attorneys to provide public defense services instead of having an office of dedicated attorneys and staff.

Zvonek says it's all about finding ways to save the city money.

"I'm not saying that they don't do a good job. I'm saying that if we can have the same level of service provided at a million dollars a year less to taxpayers, why wouldn't we consider it?" said Zvonek.

A PowerPoint presentation prepared for councilors Zvonek and Jurinsky suggests that based on pay rates and the average number of hours public defenders currently spend on cases the City stands to save close to one million dollars a year.


CBS News Colorado's Michael Abeyta asked Zvonek if there was a study or report done to analyze the accuracy of these figures and he said, that's exactly what his proposal is doing.

"If the analysis came back and suggested that there wouldn't be a significant cost savings, the conversation would be over," said Zvonek.

Hunter Parnell is a CU Boulder law student and hosts a law podcast called "Public Defenseless" about public defense law.

He says this model has failed in other jurisdictions.

"Individuals will very likely get an attorney who either has an economic incentive to work less hours if they go with a flat rate contract, which they have proposed. Or they will get an attorney who simply by real basic economic principles is likely going to be underqualified," said Parnell.

Hunter Parnell- CU Boulder Law Student and Host of "Public Defenseless" CBS

He says people accused of crimes are not getting quality representation when public defender duties are contracted out resulting in cases being mishandled which could also affect victims of crimes.

"So even if you are not interested in the rights of the accused, that's fine. To the people who want to see accountability… you want people held responsible for their actions? You cannot do that if nobody is willing to take their cases. Those cases will get dismissed," said Parnell.

But Zvonek says he is dedicated to making sure people receive high quality representation if the council decides to contract outside attorneys for their public defense needs.

"I want to know that the people who are going to be represented would get the same level of service," Zvonek said. "And if that the answer to that is yes and we save money, I would want to move forward."


Doug Wilson, doesn't buy it. He says this is an attack on poor people and thinks people accused of crime in Aurora and the attorneys in his former office are being punished for his office's high acquittal and dismissal rate.

"I think it's 100% retribution," said Wilson.

It's a claim Zvonek vehemently denies. He says he just wants the city to run as efficiently as possible.

"I get that Doug is trying his level best to defend the office that he was building. I'm not trying to attack his office. I'm not trying to attack him," said Zvonek.

Zvonek says City Council will discuss the request for proposals in this matter at Monday's meeting. He also says while, when compared to their overall budget, saving one million dollars may not seem like that much, the money saved would actually be part of their discretionary budget which is much smaller.

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