If anyone qualifies as a political enigma, Senate Majority Leader John Morse may be at the top of the list. A Democrat from traditionally conservative Colorado Springs, Morse made a career out of law enforcement and holds several advanced degrees including a PhD in Public Administration and an MBA. His tenure as a Sergeant in the Colorado Springs Police Department eventually led him to a long-term position as Police Chief in Fountain where he made community policing a hallmark of his department. StopDirectFile.org had the extraordinary opportunity to interview the lawmaker about criminal and juvenile justice issues. Judging from that interview, it is safe to say that Senator Morse stands at the pinnacle of leadership in the State of Colorado and it is our privilege to endorse him.
STOPDIRECTFILE.ORG: You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of Community Policing. What is community policing?
SENATOR MORSE: Community Policing is actively engaging the community in identifying and resolving the issues that lead to crime and disorder. So often, the police sort of figure out for themselves what the problems are or what they want to address and leave the community out of it. We sort of police on to the community instead of policing from within the community. So, community policing is actively working with the community to figure out what issues are important to them and how those issues should be addressed.
STOPDIRECTFILE.ORG: Why did you choose to go into law enforcement?
SENATOR MORSE: I worked my way through college on a paramedic ambulance and every day I bounced out of bed and said ‘I get to go to work this morning.’ I was going to college; getting an accounting and finance degree. When I finished my degree, I went to work as a CPA and that was great, but I didn’t bounce out of bed every morning saying ‘I want to go to work today.’ With ambulances you sit and wait for calls to come in, but in a police department you get to go out and meet people and that’s exciting in its own right. The police thing is fascinating on many different levels, but that’s how I got into it and eventually ended up being Chief of Police in Fountain.
STOPDIRECTFILE.ORG: What in your background and experience most informs your work as a state legislator?
SENATOR MORSE: I touched on the fact that I was a paramedic. The CPA also informs my work a great deal as I spent a year on the Joint Budget Committee. That was huge. After I left my position as Police Chief in Fountain, I was president and CEO of Silver Key Senior Services, a non-profit organization that enables people over 60 to stay in their homes as long as possible. That taught me about seniors and the importance of senior issues. One of the things I learned at Silver Key, that seems to be common sense, is that dental work is so important because as you age into your 80s and 90s you lose your teeth. If you pay attention to seniors’ diet and see that they get at least one hot meal a day, the benefits are enormous, but if their teeth don’t support their nutrition their health deteriorates rapidly. Medicare doesn’t cover dental so when their teeth start to go bad you can just watch them lose their lives.
STOPDIRECTFILE.ORG: You seem very detail oriented. In 2008 you voted to reduce consequences for parolees who violate minor provisions of their parole. Can you tell us more about that legislation and what sort of budgetary implications it had?
SENATOR MORSE: I can’t be too specific without the fiscal note in front of me, but we estimate it costs us about $28,000 per year to hold someone in prison. Keeping them on the street preferably as a law abiding, fully employed, productive member of society they’re actually contributing to the tax base. You subtract the cost of incarceration and add the revenue from a productive citizen and it seems like a pretty good net improvement in the fiscal scheme of things. If you watch people long enough, especially as a police officer, it is only a matter of time before they violate a traffic law. When you’ve got somebody on parole, by definition you’re watching them very carefully. People are people and they’re going to make mistakes so you have to be able to differentiate between the stupid things and dangerous things parolees do that might be red flags. What this bill, in my view, was really about was making the distinction between those things so that we don’t send everybody back automatically, but we send just those back that really need to go back. Again, if you watch people long enough we will all make mistakes.
STOPDIRECTFILE.ORG: For you, what is the balance between punishment and rehabilitation?
I wish I had a pithy answer for the difference between punishment and rehabilitation. Punishment is sometimes absolutely necessary both from a societal standpoint as well as an individual standpoint. But punishment needs to be consistent with the crime committed and often we’re punishing people for the rest of their lives over once in a lifetime mistakes. That’s not appropriate.
One thing we did last session, specifically in Colorado Springs, is we instituted a veteran’s court. We send lots of young men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan and they are submitted to huge stresses including lots of blast injuries. The soldiers within a block or two of a blast radius end up having their brains rattled. We’re now learning that some of those soldiers come back more aggressive, less patient, less tolerant of society and, for lack of a better term, ‘snap.’ They end up doing something – drink and drive, incur accidents, abuse drugs. We created the veteran’s court so that judges can consider why veterans might be acting out and devise ways to mitigate their behavior without necessarily putting them in prison and throwing away the key. Its a pretty good idea, in my view. Every criminal probably has a ‘reason’ why they are the way they are. So if we can start with this veteran’s court where we take the issues that people have and mitigate them and learn how to do that for everyone then we can start drilling down and say ‘hey, this kid is suffering PTSD related to the way that he was [abused] and that’s why [he] did this and this is how we can fix it to put [him] back on the straight and narrow.’
I think it is fascinating how we’re starting to realize that our soldiers aren’t fully responsible for what they’ve done. Sure we have to punish them and hold them accountable on the one hand, but we have to make darn sure they get the treatment they need so that they don’t fall back into this trap later. That’s a good idea. We should do that for everybody.
STOPDIRECTFILE.ORG: In 2010 you sponsored legislation that reduced drug use to a misdemeanor. Why did you decide to fight for reductions in sentencing?
SENATOR MORSE: We have to look at the system as a whole and what it is really accomplishing. If we’re dinging people for doing drugs, are we really accomplishing something? Is that really having a societal benefit? I think the answer is not only no, but hell no. People tried prohibition and that didn’t really work. You absolutely shouldn’t drink and drive. I have probably made more arrests for drinking and driving as a patrol officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department than any other patrol officer. If I were to go back to that, it would be the same. I would continue to make more DUI arrests because I think people’s lives can be totally altered in an instant because someone was drinking and driving. The reality is that people are going to drink and we should manage that so that it doesn’t have a down side for the rest of us, but we shouldn’t try to prohibit it. It just doesn’t work.
It is the same with drugs. I personally haven’t tasted alcohol. I’ve never been drunk. I’ve never done any drugs; never even been tempted to do drugs. You could legalize drugs tomorrow and I still wouldn’t do them. But I think we need to figure out how to help people get through their lives as opposed to just locking them up when they do something that we, as a society, find morally repugnant. We need to save our limited prison dollars for offenders that need to be locked up for a little while in order to make society safer.
STOPDIRECTFILE.ORG: Are kids redeemable and what do you think of the practice of direct file from a policy perspective?
SENATOR MORSE: Kids are absolutely redeemable. From a policy perspective, I think there are a couple of problems with direct file. First, direct file gives District Attorneys an awful lot of power. They get to decide whether or not to file [adult charges against kids]. I think that’s too much power to put in the hands of that particular office. Second, I think [the decision to file adult charges is] a matter of statewide concern, especially because the rest of us are going to have to pay for charging, trying and holding that person, in some cases, for the rest of their lives. Why are we leaving that up to an individual District Attorney who was only elected by 1/23 of the population when all of us are going to have to bear the cost? Direct file needs to be looked at very, very carefully. We also need to intervene early and often to make sure that kids don’t get into that situation.
STOPDIRECTFILE.ORG: Do you agree with Justice Clarence Thomas that state legislatures need to take up the issue of life sentences for kids?
SENATOR MORSE: I agree that state legislatures [should take up the issue of life sentences for kids]. I think we need to look very carefully at what we’re accomplishing. As a society, we have this idea that if we’re very tough on crime, criminals will recognize that and stop committing crimes and we’ll all live happily ever after. There isn’t a shred of evidence to support that theory and yet we’ve clung to it tenaciously for the last 25 years. So let’s stop, figure out what works and start implementing that. Let’s be careful about giving up on any human being, but especially children. What I don’t think society gets is that we really only throw away 3% of [offenders]. The other 97% we put away for awhile and then they come back. What are they going to do when they come back? Are they going to be able to get jobs, provide for their families and become good taxpayers? No, they’re not because we make it darn near impossible. We say, ‘you can’t live here, you can’t work here, you can’t associate with these people and don’t forget to pay all your fees on time or we’ll put you back.’ We have to stop being just tough on crime and start being really, really, smart on crime.