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The 2019 legislative session might have ended on May 3, but Colorado Rep. Leslie Herod is still working. On Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis signed eight bills she sponsored into law. The octet focused on criminal justice—including parolee voting rights and “ban the box,” an effort to eliminate questions about criminal history on initial job applications.
It’s all part of what has been a busy year for the Denver Democrat, who also took on several leadership positions, including leading the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado and chairing the House Finance committee. As the representative to Colorado’s 8th District, which encompasses much of Northeast Denver, her legislation covered a wide variety of issues, but focused on a criminal justice reform agenda, which she outlined when I profiled in her 5280’s February issue. Earlier this month, we sat down to discuss the session, unfinished business, and her summer plans (spoiler: she’ll be busy).
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Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: Can you describe the session in a few words?
Chaotically successful….I think if you are a Democrat, or a progressive in Colorado, or someone who wants to see Colorado move forward in a way that benefits all of us, you are happy with the outcome of session.
The 2018 session often felt stalled. How did this session compare?
It definitely wasn’t stalled. I felt like it was drinking from a fire hose; there was just so much going on and so much to manage. And a lot of things being moved. I will be honest with you: There were bills that I put on the table that I didn’t expect to see the finish line and they did.
Probably most of the ones that I carried for the first time this year. I wanted to start the conversation [on those bills], but the way that I operate is that I also like to finish the conversation. People, I think, had a sense that they had to come to the table and they had to talk. We were able to make progress very quickly, and get to consensus pretty quickly on some bills that would not have [had] the opportunity before.
Which bill surprised you the most?
I think the bail reform bill shocked me, especially that it was unanimous and so bipartisan. It was surprising to me. I knew that I was going to have one Republican, my co-sponsor, and thought hopefully I can get some more. But I did not think it was going to be so strongly supported. And it was, and we’ve been able to ensure that people are not being held in jail for low-level crimes because they can’t afford to pay. We’re talking tens of thousands of Coloradans who will never have to face that because of this law that was passed.
With some much happening at the Capitol this session, what bills might our readers not have heard about that are making an impact?
I think “ban the box” was huge. It’s something that people have been working on for decades. It is not a novel idea. I didn’t invent the “ban the box” idea. I definitely have been hearing about it, talking about it, working on it, since I was in college.
I think the one bill that I’m really proud of that will probably go under the radar for a few years is the college savings accounts. The other piece about criminal justice reform that we don’t talk enough about is that because we’re spending so much money on incarceration, we’re not putting that money into education. And so our education system is completely broken, and we’re not utilizing the resources that we have as a state to put into that education system.
So I ran a bill this year that passed that created college savings accounts; put $100 into college savings accounts for every baby born or adopted in Colorado. And then that money can compound. And what we’ve seen—and what the statistics [show]—is if you have between $100 and $500 dollars in a savings account, you are more likely to go to college. But, more importantly, you are more likely to even think about going to college at a younger age.
So, from education resources to bail reform to banning the box, you’ve tackled a wide spectrum of issues with a focus on criminal justice. Was that intentional?
Yes. It was very intentional because I want to dismantle our criminal justice system and I want to dismantle historic and institutional racism that exists within Colorado and in our country, quite frankly. And the way that you do that is you think about how someone is impacted at every point in the cycle.
Previously, you and Sen. Faith Winter (D-Westminster) worked on a budget amendment that gave people in state prisons access to free tampons. This year, you sponsored a bill that ensures that for people in custody as well. The bill was inspired by the experience of Elisabeth Epps, who was featured as a Disrupter in 5280’s January issue. How did that happen?
It was wholly because Elisabeth told her story. Since I introduced that bill, I can’t tell you how many women and trans people came to me and said, “This was an issue that I had as well.” People who you wouldn’t think had ever been to jail.…This is a normal occurrence that people wouldn’t talk about, and because Elisabeth was brave enough to share her story, we were able to change it and ensure that women don’t have that story moving forward.
Do you have any unfinished business?
I will say that the bail conversation will continue. There is more to do in the bail reform world. We’re not done. There is more to do on looking at the criminal justice system and what laws were put in place to disproportionately impact people of color.
After all that, do you get to relax? Do you have summer plans?
I plan to continue the work that I’ve been doing….I’m excited about continuing the work for Caring 4 Denver and seeing that through. I think it is really important that we provide the mental health resources to people who live, work, and play right here in our city. And we have a great opportunity to do that with Caring 4 Denver’s passage [in November 2018], and now it is time to implement and I’m really excited about that. And then I’ll make sure that we have good progressives elected to office. I’ll continue to fight for that at every level.
When do you start ramping up for next session?
I don’t think it ever stops. I took Saturday off and I binge-watched some TV—and now we just keep going. We keep going.