In the 21 years that Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely has sat on the bench, she has contributed to the many advancements in approaching defendants in a more humanistic manner by providing them with resources rather than to throw them in jail.
Fernandez-Ely, who will retire later this year, is viewed by her peers as a pioneer in building alliances with professionals in the mental health, addiction, law enforcement and justice system. to create programs designed to help people exit the system with the appropriate rehabilitation.
“Her style was born out of compassion,” said Jeff Cheney, a Ninth Judicial District attorney, who has worked with Fernandez-Ely since her appointment by Gov. Bill Owens in 2000. “She has a heart of gold and cares about all those who appear before her in court.
Fernandez-Ely said it became very clear during his early days as a county judge that mental illness, addiction and homelessness permeated the criminal justice system.
Pre-trial services and diversion programs were established within the Ninth Judicial District and County Court early in his tenure, including in partnership with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and a now-defunct organization called Right Door to include mental health support services, case management and supervised abstinence. .
“It was a wonderful hands-on experience,” Fernandez-Ely said, noting that 80% of arrests and cases in his court are alcohol-related, whether it’s assault, domestic violence or driving. with weakened faculties.
Work under the aegis of problem-solving courts
There are fewer people going through the proverbial revolving door of the local criminal justice system due to the establishment of pre-trial services in which a team of professionals and counselors work with accused individuals individually to find the cause. deep in their wrong side of the law.
“I think a lot of people are benefiting from it,” said Roger Adams, who worked with Fernandez-Ely as a case manager in the Pitkin County Courts Pre-Trial Services. “She is a trailblazer and responsible in some ways for the progressive things happening in Pitkin County.”
Problem-solving and welfare courts, such as the Drug Court and the DUI Court, were established in the Ninth Judicial District in the early to mid-2000s.
Seeing the need to treat the mentally ill in his courtroom and reduce recidivism, Fernandez-Ely established a mental health tribunal in the Ninth Judicial District through advisory meetings of the state’s judicial community.
The idea was to unravel the system so that jail was not the solution, and a host of resources are provided as options for the defendant which involves Mind Springs Health, an Aspen counseling center that contracts with the probation service. of the Ninth Judicial District, as well as the public defender and the administrators of the prosecutor’s office and the prison.
Once in the program, participants receive assistance with medical and medication management, housing, employment, therapy, and other needs.
The atmosphere in the welfare tribunal is motivating rather than accusatory, with Fernandez-Ely often acting more as an adviser than a judge.
“She’s the People’s Judge,” said Lauren Maytin, Aspen-based criminal defense lawyer. “The parties in her backyard are treated humanely, their stories are heard… she has had a wide range of impacts on people.”
Fernandez-Ely’s style is to let “people go on and I don’t care about the time,” she said. “I feel like there is a cathartic element to this. “
Fernandez-Ely’s colleagues describe his behavior as engaging, neutral, fair, patient and consistent.
She seeks to resolve conflicts using all the tools at her disposal, including firmness when necessary.
Abe Hutt, a Denver-based criminal defense attorney, said Fernandez-Ely is the go-to for a good judge and he would like to clone her for the big city.
“She is ready and willing and able to be tough on people and she is ready and willing and able to be compassionate and forgiving,” he said. “She has all the traits you would want in a judge, especially in a county court.”
The Aspen Police Department now has dedicated officers who are trained in dealing with people with mental illnesses, which have evolved from mental health court.
Pitkin County Health and Human Services have expanded their reach with a grant for what is known as the Pitkin County Crisis Team in which a therapist accompanies an officer on 911 calls.
A different approach to crimes, civil cases
Fernandez-Ely estimated that she had seen about 30,000 people appear before her in Pitkin County Court, whether for small claims, civil suits, restraining orders, evictions, petty crimes, cases of domestic violence, assault or DUI.
When she started, the caseload was around 1,700 cases per year, but has been reduced by several hundred due to the programs in place designed to help people in crisis, as well as Fernandez’s passion- Ely to make a difference in their life.
“One of the good things about county courts is that you have that connection for progressive engagement, that’s the term that really appeals to me,” she said. “A lot of it is about addiction and mental health it should be behavioral science, transformative justice. “
So she has worked diligently over the years to create a framework and approach to respond to violence, harm and abuse.
The progressive commitment is to help people end their homelessness as quickly as possible.
The local system provides help with family information and in 2008 the Aspen homeless shelter was established, offering showers, a place to wash clothes and access to a computer and mailbox to help people. to get back on his feet.
“It’s the simple things that help,” Fernandez-Ely said.
Restorative justice is a criminal justice system that emphasizes the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.
Cheney said his exposure to this philosophy had an indelible effect on him as a young prosecutor.
“I pay tribute to him for motivating me to appreciate restorative justice, to have compassion for both parties,” he said. “I owe Erin a debt of gratitude for teaching me the importance of this.”
When that comes into play, reckless driving more often than not causes fatalities, which Fernandez-Ely says are the most difficult.
“You are trying to right the wrong done and you are trying to honor the victim and the family,” she said, adding that she tailors a useful public service according to the victim’s wishes. “It feels like they’re engaged in the punishment and that’s what’s so difficult about these cases because the consequences are so much greater than the guilt.
“It’s super hard, it hurts your stomach, it hurts your heart because there is nothing you can do to bring the person back.”
Fernandez-Ely, 68, said she wanted to retire before the case in which a local woman hit and killed a 5-year-old with her SUV as she crossed the street on the avenue Hyman does not reach him.
“I am losing sleep because of all of them,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
The defendant, Heidi Houston, avoided jail as part of a plea deal, and part of her sentence involved crafting a plan that honors the victim, Hannah Heusgen’s love for ballet and horses, at the request of his family.
Fernandez-Ely’s retirement goal has been extended, however, due to the pandemic, which she says would not have been fair for a new judge to have to face virtual hearings while learning the job.
“It was not the right thing to do to let someone down,” she said.
Before and After Pitkin County Bench
Prior to replacing County Judge Tam Scott, Fernandez-Ely practiced law for 20 years in Aspen.
She had been a civil lawyer and was one of the plaintiff’s attorneys in Pennobscot Inc. (et al.) Against Pitkin County in 1982, considered one of the most significant land use cases in the ‘State. The ruling limited the county’s powers in regulating development on properties of 35 acres or more.
Prior to coming to Aspen, Fernandez-Ely was a South Florida prosecutor specializing in white collar crimes and misdemeanors.
She received her philosophy degree from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and graduated from the University of Florida Law School.
Fernandez-Ely’s official retirement date is October 31.
After that, she said she would continue to volunteer in the areas of homelessness and mental health in the criminal justice system, as well as traveling with her husband, John, gardening, painting and painting. carry out projects at home.
The job is part-time with a weighted workload of 55% and pays $ 93,931.
Nine people applied and a seven-person commission will meet on Tuesday to interview the candidates and send two or three finalists to Governor Jared Polis, who has 15 days to make an appointment.
“I keep my fingers crossed that the governor appoints someone with the same qualities,” Hutt said.
Maytin, who sits on the commission, said there were outstanding candidates but it would be difficult to replace Fernandez-Ely.
“She’s somewhat irreplaceable,” Maytin said. “She is truly one of a kind and will forever have a place in my heart and in this community.”