The Denver Post
Nine years ago Denver voters approved a $378 million bond package that upgraded the city's antiquated, unsafe and crowded criminal justice facilities — a project that brought new structures and modern touches but strangely did not solve a glaring problem.
The jails are still crowded.
After a net gain of 864 beds from the bond project, the city is now looking at spending millions more to build more jail space or hire more jail staff.
Though Denver has implemented numerous diversion programs to keep people out of jail and crime rates have fallen, the city's jails continue to fill.
By next year, officials say, the jails could be overcrowded once again.
"That surprises me," said James Mejia, who was the justice center's project manager at the time. "We had projections that it would be a couple more decades before the facilities would be full. ... I am saddened to hear that if that is the case."
In a strange conundrum, jail bookings have decreased but the jail population has increased. Inmates are simply staying in jail longer.
Felony filings have increased 30 percent since 2010 to nearly 6,500 filings in 2013. Those cases take longer to get to trial.
One day last week, nearly 40 percent of the jail's population was classified as "pre-trial felons," according to the sheriff's department.
One reason for the recent uptick in felony cases may be rooted in technology.
In recent years, the city has upgraded its fingerprint and DNA detection systems, and in July of last year opened a new, $28 million crime lab. Those programs immediately struck gold.
In one year, police say, there has been a 42 percent increase in forensic leads on fingerprints and a 129 percent increase on DNA-related leads.
"Our hits are going through the roof," said Denver Police Commander Matt Murray. "People who go in on a traffic warrant are getting arrested on felonies when they get a hit (from their fingerprints) on a case. We are catching more people. But there is an unintended consequence. With an increase in this technology, you are putting more people in jail."
Last month Denver Sheriff Gary Wilson told City Council members if inmate trends continue, the jail's total rated capacity of 2,330 average daily inmates is expected to be exceeded by 2015.
Further, Wilson predicts that number could hit 2,512 by 2018.
Denver's jail facilities actually have more space that is not being used — two shuttered facilities at the Smith Road complex and an unfinished floor on a jail building constructed in 2012 with bond money.
If those buildings were opened, capacity at the county jail on Smith Road and the downtown detention center would total 2,698 beds.
To reopen the two shuttered and old facilities on Smith Road would add 368 more beds, but the sheriff's department would need to increase staffing by 51 people at an estimated cost of $3 million a year. That would likely be a budget item that would need City Council approval.
To finish the unfinished third floor on the new facility on Smith Road would add 128 new beds, but the city would need to spend an additional $6 million. A funding source has yet to be identified, but it would not come from the 2005 justice center bond. Those dollars have already been spent.
Why do we appear to be right back where we were in 2005 after spending hundreds of millions of dollars?
Wilson said plans were not short-sighted and taxpayers weren't fooled. But critics say the system is broken and the issue will never be solved by adding more jail space.
"The problem wasn't that the previous jail was too small," said Christie Donner, director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, who fought the 2005 vote for a new justice center. "There were significant problems of how we used jail beds. We still haven't solved those problems."
In the campaign of 2005, voters were told many things that didn't materialize.
They were promised a new downtown courthouse with 35 courtrooms. Instead, one with 29 courtrooms was built, with six courtrooms "shelled" for later use.
They were told a separate parking garage would be built with 451 public spaces. Instead, one was built with 233 public spaces.
They heard a new building would be constructed at the jail on Smith Road with room for 385 inmates. Instead, one was built for 256 inmates with the top floor delayed for possible later construction.
One promise that was kept is bringing the project in on budget. It's no wonder.
No question the bond that was approved by 56 percent of voters was necessary because the city had decrepit and dangerous facilities. But the campaign never suggested the jails would fill again 10 years after the election.
"If you build it, they will come," said Maureen Cain, policy director for Colorado Criminal Defense Bar Foundation.
Cain said many people in jail are on pre-trial holds because they cannot afford to pay bond amounts. A disproportionate number of those are minorities. A recent study of the jail population on one day last year found that 70 percent of the pre-trial detainees were minorities, she said.
They stay in jail awaiting their court appearances and then get probation when they are sentenced, said Donner.
"We put them in jail before they are convicted," she said. "Then after they are convicted, they are on community supervision. How much sense does that make?"
In 2005, the city created a 32-member Crime Prevention and Control Commission to work with criminal justice agencies on ways to reduce crime, cut recidivism and manage the jail population.
Statistics show the commission's work has paid off, reversing a 46-year trend of yearly population increases at Denver's jail.
Specifically, the commission has reduced the average daily jail population by 546 inmates a day through various programs, according to Regina Huerter, executive director of the commission.
Nearly 80,000 jail bed days were saved in 2013 by placing pre-trial inmates on electronic monitoring, according to the city's 2014 budget.
An estimated 94,300 jail bed days were saved due to the pre-trial supervision program that determines a defendant's eligibility to be released from jail before trial.
Other programs are worth noting.
The city stopped jailing people for failing to pay fines or failing to pay their RTD tickets. A sobriety court has reduced bed stays. And the city's Chrysalis Program has worked to get prostitutes off the streets and out of jail.
The city is about to launch a program that focuses on a "front-end user" population of 299 frequent fliers into the criminal justice system. They are generally homeless transients, mentally ill and addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Of those offenders, 299 accounted for 14,283 charges over a seven-year period.
Last year, the total criminal justice expenses for arresting, jailing and prosecuting 208 of those offenders was nearly $3 million. Each of them spent an average of 72 days in jail.
Their expenses aren't just for criminal justice interactions.
A total of 239 of those front-end users also were seen at Denver Health in 2012, visits that included detox, emergency room and psychiatric stays. Only a handful had health insurance. The total cost for health care was $8 million.
"They are an expensive group," Huerter said.
The city is creating a separate court process for the front-end users — flagging them when they are arrested and setting them up for a special program that will attempt to deal with their mental illnesses or addictions.
In sentencing, for example, front-end users could start treatment in jail or have an option to serve their time in the Fort Lyon Residential Treatment Center.
"It really is a population that we can catch," Huerter said. "We feel we can cut in half their total cost and reduce their likelihood of offending."
Denver County presiding judge John Marcucci, in his chambers recently, flipped through photos of prostitutes' mug shots. Their faces showed the destruction of life on the streets over time. He has photos on the wall of some of those women who went through the Chrysalis Program and are in recovery with their children in group home.
The judge's eyes misted over, fearing people will focus only on the increasing numbers of inmates and not understand the work he and others like Huerter and Sheriff Wilson have been doing to reduce the population.
"We are trying to make our system better and temper that with justice," Marcucci said. "We are doing everything we possibly can to make sure we have the right people in jail."
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Sunday, April 27, 2014
The Denver Post