Among the counties that make up the 16th Judicial District, Otero is the largest. La Junta is its biggest city. You’d think a spike in crime leading to 37 percent increase in felony case filings would be hard to miss.
"I was shocked to get the phone call," said City Manager Rick Klein.
That’s because the crime rate in La Junta hasn’t really changed.
"In 2016, we did have one murder," Klein said. "But last year we didn’t and we actually saw a decrease in like robberies and stuff."
So, what gives? One likely explanation is that more cases are coming out of the prisons in neighboring Crowley County. Prosecutors here in the 16th charged dozens of inmates as part of a Colorado Organized Crime Act investigation into drug smuggling.
Yet felony cases are up statewide by an average of 22 percent over the last two years. Seven judicial districts saw the highest increases of 36-44 percent.
Four of them (the 7th, 11th, 13th, and 16th Judicial Districts) all have a least one private or state-owned prison within their boundaries. But the remaining three districts (the 8th, 12th, and 21st Judicial Districts) have no prisons. Increases were smaller (between 7-21 percent) in the other six judicial districts that have prisons.
Another possible explanation is drug abuse. State health data show elevated heroin overdose deaths in 39 counties. Those counties are located along the Front Range, the San Luis Valley, Arkansas Valley and near the Wyoming border.
Regardless of the cause, the new cases are putting a financial strain on the justice system rural communities where money is scarce.
"How do we, in an area that is not growing like the metro areas, how do we be able to utilize the funds that we do have," said commissioner Keith Goodwin.
The Colorado Department of Corrections pays for prosecuting the cases charged against their inmates, but the majority of funding for District Attorney’s offices still comes from counties.
Goodwin said property values in Otero County have not risen the same as they have in cities along the Front Range, and recent census number suggest the population is actually shrinking not growing.
"So, what you’re doing is you’re basically living like a retiree on a fixed income."
The county plans to buy the building that houses the District Attorney’s Office. Goodwin said he and the other commissioners hope to use the money they save from paying rent each month to increase prosecutor salaries. But the money will only go so far. The county jail is overcrowded and the State Court System
"Its a challenge right now for everybody involved and we can’t do everything," said Goodwin.
State lawmakers have introduced a number of bills this session to address the heroin epidemic. They are also bills that are designed to help with crowding in county jails and state prisons. At the moment, there is no legislation on the table to help with funding for prosecutors.