New DA plans to reduce incarceration for addicts, mentally ill
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Matt Karzen, a longtime prosecutor and Steamboat Springs resident, was sworn in Monday as district attorney of the 14th Judicial District.
His appointment comes after Brett Barkey announced his resignation as DA in May. Barkey, who served in his position since 2012, left to pursue volunteer opportunities and a graduate degree at the University of Denver.
In preparation for his new job overseeing criminal cases in Routt, Moffat and Grand counties, Karzen has been meeting with local law enforcement agencies as well as legal and government officials to discuss his plans for the remainder of Barkey’s term, which ends in 2020.
Karzen said his mission is to strike a balance between public safety and human decency. For certain cases — specifically those involving drug or alcohol addiction or mental illness — he wants to seek treatment options for defendants rather than incarceration.
“Addiction and mental health are public heath issues that have been historically imposed on the criminal justice system, and we don’t have the resources to manage it,” Karzen said.
With smaller caseloads than more urban judicial districts, Karzen wants to take the time to evaluate which approach — punitive-focused or recovery-focused — will provide the most appropriate justice for individual cases.
“The criminal justice system functions better when you begin with humility and empathy,” he said.
For example, he would favor seeking addiction treatment for a military veteran who abuses alcohol as a form of self-medication.
“That’s different than someone who has been working on their fourth DUI,” Karzen said. “They’re not alcoholics — they just don’t care.” Public office hours
Others in the legal community are pleased that Karzen is taking the helm as DA, even those who have argued against him in the courtroom.
Larry Combs, a defense attorney who has been practicing law in Routt County for about 20 years, has seen firsthand Karzen’s balanced approach to criminal cases.
“He is a very formidable opponent in the courtroom, but in negotiations and discussions, I think he really appreciates when people are sincere in making a change in their lives,” Combs said.
As someone who believes that incarceration does not cure addiction, Combs appreciates having a prosecutor in the DA’s Office who is willing to look for alternative dispositions while finding justice for victims.
“Overall, I think he is going to be a tremendous asset to the 14th Judicial District,” Combs said.
Karzen attended law school at the University of Denver and began his legal career as a deputy DA in Grand County from 1995 to 1997. He also has worked as a prosecutor in the Child Sex Assault Unit in Arapahoe County and the Gang Prosecution Unit in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and as a chief assistant DA primarily responsible for homicide prosecutions in Athens, Georgia, and as both chief deputy DA and assistant DA in the 14th Judicial District of Colorado.
Karzen is also making some changes to encourage his colleagues to volunteer. Starting July 1, he said employees can apply to take a “service sabbatical,” during which they could, for example, help provide extended disaster relief or build homes for Habitat for Humanity.
An avid service member himself, Karzen has applied much of what he’s learned through groups like Steamboat Ski Patrol, where he worked as a ski patroller, and, most recently, Routt County Search and Rescue, to his legal work. The primary task of a first responder, as he described it, is to condense information to the basic facts — a lost person’s GPS coordinates or a patient’s vitals — and make decisions based on that cut-and-dry information.
He believes such knowledge can be invaluable to the legal world, especially for young prosecutors learning how to assess criminal cases.
“And you never lose sight of the endgame, which is doing the right thing,” Karzen said.