DENVER — Chris Lazarus found her firstborn son, Matt, dead of a heroin overdose when she went to wake him up for school. He was 18 years old.
“I remember the day that he died like it was two hours ago,” she said. “It doesn’t go away.”
Matt died in 2012 and the heroin problem in the metro area has grown exponentially since then.
Barbara Roach with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency said the amount of heroin in the Denver region has increased more than tenfold in the past few years.
Local police and federal agents are cracking down. They are making bigger heroin seizures and more arrests.
But some say the next step of the system is broken in Denver.
“My concern is this system then puts public safety at risk,” Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said.
The FOX31 Problem Solvers went through five months of Denver police reports and cases filed involving accused heroin dealers. There were 115 cases that could be determined in the court process.
There were 72 suspected heroin dealers released immediately by a judge on a personal recognizance bond. That’s basically a promise to come back for the next court hearing.
Most of them did not. Forty-eight suspected heroin dealers — 66 percent — failed to appear.
“People are getting low bonds, PR bonds when they’re not going to come back to court. They’re going to go out and continue to commit crimes,” Morrissey said.
The numbers are even higher when suspected heroin dealers told police they came from another country.
The DEA said heroin in Denver comes from the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico. They use young men from Honduras and Mexico to sell heroin on Denver streets.
Of the 115 people arrested for selling heroin, 26 said they came from Honduras or Mexico. Of those, judges released 17 on PR bonds and almost all of them, 14, failed to appear.
Chris Lazarus said it was a cartel dealer who sold her son the lethal dose of heroin.
“It’s just giving them a free ride to go back and make more money and kill more kids,” she said.
Morrissey said the judges have the discretion to order suspected criminals held on higher bonds. They just don’t.
“It’s the judge that’s responsible for what happens after they give someone a PR bond,” he said.
Denver County Chief Judge John Marcucci defends the system and said any district attorney has the option to attend the initial court appearance and argue for a higher bond.
He said only the Denver DA’s office chooses not to. He also points out a 2013 Colorado law requires judges to use the least restrictive conditions possible when setting bond.
It’s part of a nationwide judicial reform move away from money bonds.
Marcucci also said Denver County judges handle more than 14,000 felony cases a year and 85 percent of the people released on bond show up for their court date.