Denver DA Candidates Discuss Their Experience, Visions for the Office

On June 25, Denver voters will effectively decide the city’s new district attorney. While the general election is still a few months away, the Denver DA race involves only two candidates, John Walsh and Leora Joseph. Both candidates are running in the Democratic party primary. The Republican party didn’t field a candidate for this race. 

The candidates are looking to take over from Beth McCann, Denver’s DA since her election victory in 2016. McCann made the decision not to run for re-election in 2023.

Both candidates would bring significant experience to the role. Joseph currently serves as the director of Colorado’s Office of Civil and Forensic Mental Health, overseeing a $350 million budget. Prior to that, she spent over two decades working in DA offices. 

Walsh was most recently a partner at WilmerHale. Prior to WilmerHale, Walsh served as U.S. attorney for the District of Colorado. During his time as U.S. attorney, Walsh led the U.S. Attorney General’s national advisory committee of U.S. attorneys from 2015 to 2016, according to his campaign website. 

The two candidates met for a debate hosted by the Denver Bar Association on June 18 to discuss their visions for the office and how they would address the issues currently facing the city. 

Joseph said the work she began her career with, and the work she’s prioritized her whole life, has been focusing on victims. She said her recent work, heading the OCFMH, has been focused on stopping the cycle of people going from jail to the street, then back from the street to the jail. 

“We’re in the middle of a massive mental health crisis here in Denver, and quite frankly, in the country, and we need real solutions to end that cycle,” said Joseph. “And that’s my commitment, that I’m coming to all of you with a commitment to accountability, supporting public safety, as I’ve done for over 20 years in the DA’s office, but bringing new energy, new ideas to help people with serious mental illness and substance misuse getting treatment.” 

Walsh said the reason he got in the race was his concern about the direction the city is headed in. He noted the city has struggled with basic community safety issues and the fentanyl and mental health crises that are affecting many in the city. 

“We’re at a critical moment. I think we can absolutely turn these issues around in a way that we can be proud of, that can make the system more fair at the same time, but that doesn’t happen automatically,” said Walsh. “And we need fair and firm and energetic leadership in the district attorney’s office in order to make that happen, and that’s the kind of leadership that I will bring.” 

When the candidates were asked what policy they would change immediately if they could, they offered answers that echoed their focuses. 

Joseph wants to change the office into a vertical prosecution style, so the attorneys would be able to focus on their cases and prioritize victims. 

“That’s a model where it dovetails with my community prosecution, so the two of them go together,” said Joseph. “Community prosecution, assigning prosecutors to the different police districts that we have, so that they’re responsible and responsive, not just to the police, but to the whole neighborhood, the small business associates, the faith community, the schools, making sure that we have real communication going on between the DA’s office and community, and that cases get assigned to prosecutors at the moment of arrest.”

Walsh’s immediate change would be changing the approach the office takes when addressing violent crimes in the city. 

“I would establish a violent crime task force across the entire office that would focus on doing two things,” said Walsh. “One, identifying what is still a small group of people who are actually pulling triggers and who pose a risk to the community. But then also as part of that effort across the office, really focusing on making sure the office is actively engaging with the community and working with the community to prevent crimes, especially youth crimes.” 

On the topic of using their discretion as DA to object to certain cases and charges being removed from public record, both candidates cited public safety as the lens to determine the use of that power. 

“Where I would focus is always where there’s an issue, as to whether it was a violent crime for example, or even if it’s a low-level violent crime, that might be an issue that I would look at,” said Walsh. “I would also want to have an understanding of whether the individual in question had shown a predilection to multiple offenses over time and repeat offenses.”

He added he wanted to be consistent with the law as the legislature intended, but thinks the job of the DA is to flag the cases where there is a public safety issue. 

Joseph said she didn’t want to have a blanket policy on that power, rather she wanted to make sure the focus was on individuals. 

“Every case has to be looked on on its own merits,” said Joseph. “I can’t see, for example, a sex offense, even a misdemeanor sex offense, those are cases I think that public safety dictates that we need to know what those are … I think we need to look at any very low-level cases and really give it the attention it deserves.” 

Both candidates spoke in support of restorative justice and its uses in non-violent crimes, as well as working to reduce implicit bias and addressing the racial disparity in the criminal justice system. 

There was also a focus on their interactions with other government bodies, including the legislature and courts during the debate. 

Walsh discussed the need for a constant, respectful interaction between the DA and the chief judges at the county court and district court level. He noted that the advocacy from the DA towards the courts should be done in the courtroom, and not in the legislature or city council. He also discussed the importance the Denver DA has in the state. 

“The DA in Denver has a unique role. It is the biggest DA office in the state, it has the most clout, we are right here by the Capitol,” said Walsh. “The role of the district attorney is to work constantly with the legislature to improve the quality of our criminal justice system and also to look for funding for the sorts of programs that need to happen.” 

Walsh pointed to his previous work advocating for the Extreme Risk Protection Orders law in Colorado and his work in D.C. as U.S. attorney for Colorado as experience for this function of the DA.  

Joseph noted that one of the key roles of an elected leader was their relationships with all of the other necessary stakeholders and the courts.  She discussed her work with the courts in her current role and the creation of the first statewide judicial mental health task force. 

“In the course of a year of working closely with the judges, we created and helped fund nine separate mental health courts across the state,” said Joseph. 

She added that she’s spent a lot of time at the Capitol and that she’s very comfortable advocating for resources in the legislature. 

“I’ve had some great success testifying for legislation, including allowing people with felonies even to have their cases dismissed and moved right into treatment for mental illness,” said Joseph.  

Not all Denver voters will soon get to decide which vision they find more attractive for the DA’s Office. Without a Republican candidate and no strong independent running, it will be Democratic and independent voters who determine who the Denver DA will be for the next four years.

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