Representative Pete Lee is running for his fourth term as the Democrat representing House District 18 in Colorado. District 18 includes Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs in El Paso County.
Representative Lee has lived in Colorado Springs for over forty years with his family. While in Colorado Springs, he practiced law for twenty-five years as a criminal justice lawyer. Lee became involved in politics when he was volunteering for a candidate and ultimately became the candidate’s campaign manager. While being campaign manager, Lee was asked to run for an upcoming vacant senate seat. Lee decided to run for the Senate in 2008 and lost. Lee said, “ I had a fabulous experience and that’s what got me immersed.”
Representative Lee’s platform is grounded in issues concerning education, creating jobs, and restorative justice. In Lee’s last term, he introduced and helped pass a bill banning juvenile isolation in the department of youth corrections. He cited this bill as his greatest accomplishment thus far. Lee said on juvenile solitary confinement, “One it is inhumane, and two it is counterproductive. Evidence and studies show that when you put angry, out of control kids in isolation they become more angry and out of control. So, it is a technique that does not accomplish the purposes, which is rehabilitation, and in fact, aggravates the conditions these kids have.
The bill initially faced resistance in the House, while the bill was co-sponsored in the Senate by two other republicans and was passed easily.
Through working as a criminal defense attorney, Representative Lee was able to become very familiar with how the criminal justice system operates. Lee said, “98 percent of people who go to prison get out of prison, but the other half of people that get out of prison, go back to prison within three years. We spend in Colorado $38,000 a year to keep one person in prison for one year. We spend $7,000 a year to send one kid to high school for a year. So, we are spending huge amounts of money and not getting results. So, that’s why I started looking for alternatives to this process and when I discovered restorative justice. To me, it was almost an elixir to address the wrongdoings.”
Restorative justice’s goal is to create harm reduction by establishing accountability and responsibility. Lee argues that the criminal justice system encourages offenders to deny responsibility for their actions and that defense attorneys tell their clients to not confess. Lee said, “Often, they work out a plea bargain for something they have not done. Most people who have gotten a speeding ticket, they go to traffic court and work out a deal with the prosecutor and plead it down to a lesser offence. So they end up pleading to a defective headlight or an obstructed rear window, or something that they have not done. It’s a lie. I think what people look for in a justice system is integrity and honesty.”
Restorative justice has a recitivism rate within the 7-10 percent range, proving that people do not reoffend following participation in a restorative justice program. The program utilizes victim-offender dialogue, where the victim and offender meet with supporters and facilitators to discuss why the crime was committed and to explain the impact of the offence. For many offenders, listening to how the victim has been impacted is transformative.
Representative Lee said on incarceration, “We [Colorado] are 4-5 times the world average and the US is seven times the world average. Senator Webb from Virginia said when he was looking at these statistics, ‘Either we, in the United States, are the most evil people in the world, or there is something fundamentally wrong with our criminal justice system. I, prefer to believe the latter.’ The victim offender dialogue is not implemented frequently in El Paso County and is more so implemented in other places. We have a very resistant DA in El Paso County and this is a very law and order community.”
In addition to the incarceration issue in Colorado, Representative Lee believes that one of the larger issues his District faces is a lack of sufficient revenue to support the required infastructure of a community this size. El Paso County is reliant on sales and income taxes to build infastructure, since property tax is low. However, sales and income tax are contingent on the economy, while property tax is not. Lee said, “The most sustainable communities are based on property tax because that is pretty consistent. The time where we need revenue is the time that it does not come in.”
The Colorado Springs Gazette reported in March 2015, “When stacked against other sizable Front Range cities, though, the Colorado Springs rate is by far the lowest at 4.279 mills. Aurora’s mill rate is 10.29; Boulder’s, 11.981; Greeley’s, 11.274; Fort Collins’, 9.797; Pueblo’s, 15.633; and Denver’s, a whopping 33.119.”
Representative Lee said, “Denver is 30 and Pueblo is 15 and we are 4. You wonder why we have holes in the roads, you wonder why restaurants get inspected every two years, you wonder why we have 500 police while other communities with 450,000 people have more than half that many.”
Another problem Representative Lee believes the District is facing is TABOR, which is a law that declare that the legislature cannot raise taxes. Representative Lee said, “We’re the only state in the United States where the legislators, my colleagues and I, do not have the right to raise taxes. Any tax increase has to be voted on by the people and people don’t vote to increase taxes. Also, we’re the only community in the state that has a triple TABOR.”
At the forefront of many Colorado College students minds is the houselessness issue in Colorado Springs. Lee said, “Homelessness at the outset is not completely a housing problem, it’s also a complex problem dealing to a great extent with mental health issues. I think there is a lack of affordable housing and there’s a lack of beds for people that are without places to stay. We’re building more beds so there will be opportunities, but we have to have back up programs for people, so that they can work their way out of that homeless situation.”
The Catalyst Editorial Board last spring came out against the Pedestrian Access Act that applied to Downtown Colorado Springs and Old Colorado City, citing that it was effectilvily criminalizing houselessness.
Representative Lee said, “I’m sympathetic to the store owners, who have people sleeping in their doorways and folks are harassing customers. But, can you tell a person they can’t sit on a flower bed? Hell no! That’s why we have communities. So that people can live in the communities, and sit in the communities and go into the parks. So, I really struggle with sit-lie ordinances. I think that people need to have the capability to sit. I mean, you can’t declare the status of being homeless as illegal.”
Colorado College students’ votes are imperative in the upcoming election. Representative Lee said, “I think they’re very important, critically important. CC students, like all students, are really the future. I need to embrace, or try to activate and excite, the students to get them interested in the political process. The whole function of a democracy is based upon people participating in that democracy, otherwise it’s a plutocracy.”