Sheriff blames long stays by inmates who violate parole or are awaiting trial
November 19, 2007 - 6:57AM
The rise has Sheriff Terry Maketa warning county officials and the community that the day is approaching when there’s no more room in his jail.
“I hate to venture to guess what could happen in the next month,” he said.
There is one deputy for every 67 inmates at the jail, and Maketa said that if the numbers continue to go up, deputies will have a hard time maintaining control.
Illegal immigrants and state prisoners contribute to the crowding, but they aren’t the main culprits, Maketa said. The primary problem is a backlog of inmates awaiting trial or reincarcerated for violating parole.
“Our No. 1 enemy is how long inmates are staying here,” Maketa said.
According to statistics provided to The Gazette by the Sheriff’s Office, the average length of stay for prisoners charged with a felony has gone up about seven days this year, from 39 in 2006 to about 46.
The 19-year-old jail at 2727 E. Las Vegas St. has enough beds for 1,599 prisoners. There’s also a tent that holds up to 200 inmates in a workrelease program.
As of Thursday morning, the jail had 1,575 inmates. Of the total, 114 were housed in the tent. The longer incarcerations tie up beds, making it harder to take in more inmates, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays, when people arrested over the weekend are awaiting court appearances, and on Thursdays, when judges often sentence offenders.
Roughly 11 percent of the jail’s inmate population, about 170 prisoners, is being held for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Colorado Department of Corrections. But Maketa said these groups don’t significantly affect crowding, since ICE moves its inmates within 72 hours, and state inmates can move to jails in other counties.
On Sept. 27, Maketa sent letters to law enforcement agencies in El Paso County, 4th Judicial District judges and magistrates and the District Attorney’s Office outlining procedures if there are no available beds at the county jail. It included prioritizing inmates based on the severity of their offense and requiring all agencies to keep their offenders until space freed up.
It wasn’t just a precaution — the jail was at capacity several times last month.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, parole violators are staying in the jail an average of about 67 days. Maketa said about 180 inmates are parolees charged with new offenses and facing revocation by the state parole board.
Inmates awaiting trial are at the county jail for an average of about 11 days, and Maketa said they make up 65 percent to 70 percent of the inmate population.
Fourth Judicial District Attorney John Newsome and Chief Judge Kirk Samelson said they understand the concern over the inmate population, but will continue to do their jobs as the law requires.
“There’s got to be more people in jail, because we’re having more trials,” said Samelson. “But we’re going to do anything necessary to fairly try them, regardless of a jail population.”
Newsome said a new jail should be among the community’s top priorities.
“I understand the need,” Newsome said. “That being said, all the arrests mean nothing without prosecution.”
In 2006, Maketa declared a moratorium on misdemeanor offenders being sent to the jail unless they posed a threat to the community. On Jan. 1 this year, he also halted the inmate work-release program because of lack of space. The program resumed April 15 after a 12,000-square-foot canvas tent was put up in the jail parking lot to house the inmates.
Maketa, who was first elected sheriff in 2002, said he and his predecessors have been asking county commissioners for a new jail for 15 years.
In 2002, a ballot proposal to build a jail was voted down. Seven years before that, voters rejected a ballot measure to expand the jail, which was built in 1988.
A 2002 Gazette article quoted former Sheriff Bernie Barry as having said in 1988 that the county would be lucky if the jail would be adequate for 15 years. By 1992, CJC was full.
In 2005 a new wing opened, adding 864 beds. But that same year, the Metro Jail was closed for safety concerns. The jail, at 205 S. Cascade Ave., had housed the county’s most dangerous inmates.
A new jail would cost taxpayers about $42 million to build and $7.9 million to staff and operate each year, Maketa said. Putting off construction for even five years, he said, would increase the cost to $60 million.
The county agreed with Maketa that a new jail is needed, but said there’s no money to build it. This month, commissioners cut $4.1 million from county budgets through the end of 2007.
The 2008 county budget is just as tight, with an estimated $7.4 million to be trimmed.
“No matter how you slice it, we need a facility for our serious offenders,” said Commission Chairman Dennis Hisey.
A proposed tax increase to fund public safety projects could go before voters in 2008. But Hisey said that even if the tax increase is approved, the sheriff might be second in line behind the coroner, who also needs a new building.
“That and the coroner’s building are the things that are the highest on the list,” he said. “The only reason why the coroner’s building is at the top is because $3 million is more doable than $40 million.”
If voters approve a tax increase next year, the earliest a new jail could be in operation would be 2011, Maketa said. “It will take 18 to 24 months to build,” he said. “And then it will take about two years to hire a full staff, and that’ll have to be done in phases.”
Until a new jail can be built, law enforcement officials say they’ll have to be creative to keep the jail population manageable.
In August, the Sheriff’s Office began a reintegration and recovery program with roughly 140 sentenced inmates. Its goal is to teach life skills to the inmates, including basic education, drug and alcohol awareness, and anger management, and steer them away from breaking the law.
Maketa said he also meets with Newsome and Samelson to discuss options to get offenders through the courts more quickly.
67 to 1
Ratio of inmates to deputies at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center. Thursday, the jail had 1,575 inmates.
Approximate cost to taxpayers to build a jail. Cost to staff and run it would be about $7.9 million a year.