District attorney announces candidacy for 2020 election

Rehabilitation for drug offenders, improving public perception among top priorities

District Attorney Matt Karzen
Courtesy photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Matt Karzen, district attorney for Colorado’s 14th Judicial District, which includes Routt and Grand counties, announced on Wednesday his campaign to run for the same position in the 2020 election.

Karzen, an unaffiliated candidate, has served as the interim DA since July after his predecessor, Brett Barkey, resigned to pursue volunteer and educational opportunities. Karzen was appointed to the post by Gov. Jared Polis.

At the time of his swearing-in, Karzen discussed plans to reduce incarceration for addicts and the mentally ill.

“These are efforts that take months, if not years. The work is not done yet,” Karzen said of his reason for running for a full term. 

He has over 24 years of criminal law experience, including four years as assistant DA prior to replacing Barkey.  

Since taking over as DA, Karzen has joined an effort through the state’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to find alternatives to filing criminal charges for certain drug-related offenses. Instead of incarceration, he wants to see greater use of rehabilitation programs to help addicts resolve the underlying issues, such as mental illness, that contributed to their criminal behavior. This operates under the rationale that jail time alone perpetuates, rather than resolves, the link between drug use and deviant behavior. 

“Traditional criminal sanctions don’t work. That is clear,” Karzen said. 

A major hurdle to implementing rehabilitation programs in Routt County, he said, is a shortage of treatment providers and making such programs accessible and affordable. Implementing a greater rehabilitation strategy also has to come with the goodwill of the public, Karzen added.

“No one wants to impose these program on communities in a way that makes them uncomfortable,” he said.

Larry Combs, a defense attorney who has been practicing law in Routt County for about 20 years, voiced support over Karzen’s approach to criminal justice, particularly his policy on seeking rehabilitation over incarceration for drug offenses.   

“Incarceration never cured a drug addict. It just delays the addiction,” Combs said. “I think Mr. Karzen recognizes that.”

A number of local leaders have endorsed Karzen’s campaign, according to a news release issued Wednesday. Routt County Commissioner Chair Beth Melton, Sheriff Garrett Wiggins and Steamboat Springs City Council member Lisel Petis were among those to support him.

In Grand County, Sheriff Brett Schroetlin, Undersheriff Wayne Schafer and County Commissioner Merrit Linke were also listed as endorsing Karzen’s candidacy.

As DA, Karzen also wants to improve the public’s perception of the criminal justice system. He referred to recent incidents, such as protests over police brutality and prosecutorial abuse, which have sparked distrust and resentment of prosecutors like himself. 

“It breaks my heart when I run into people who think prosecutors are mean, that they are just interested in throwing people in jail,” Karzen said.

To that end, he wants to improve public outreach to raise awareness of the work his office does and how it is seeking to improve the criminal justice system. 

In the last six months that Karzen has served as DA, he said the people in his office have made strides to advance their performance, particularly younger attorneys. He also has seen more general improvements in the community to address the issue of sexual assault, including raising awareness and removing barriers to reporting. 

While he is proud of these achievements, Karzen acknowledged, “there is a lot of important work left to do.”

If elected, Karzen would serve as DA through 2024.

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