Denver has an addiction problem – an addiction to jails and prisons. And the time has come for the city to get off its jail habit.
That’s the advice Denise Maes of the Colorado chapter of the Americans for Civil Liberties Union has for city officials as they get ready to present the Denver 2016 budget to Denver City Council on Monday.
The total city budget of $1.83 billion includes an $8 million bump for affordable and workforce housing, and $7.1 million for transportation and transit infrastructure.
But it’s the $24 million in funding for reform efforts in the sheriff’s department that has people like Maes and other community leaders concerned about the department’s priorities.
Tuesday, these leaders called on the City Council to rethink the budget request, in part because the city and sheriff’s department have failed to consider another possibility in reducing costs: reducing jail populations.
The group sent a letter to City Council, recommending the Sheriff’s Department provide projections for future costs, not including the $24 million in the budget, that would address reform recommendations made by consultants last May. Secondly, the letter stated, the Council should immediately create a committee that would include community representatives with experience in criminal justice reform. That committee would then make recommendations on how to reduce the jail population and improve inmate programs.
Lisa Calderon of the Colorado Latino Forum, who also signed the letter, told The Colorado Independent that the sheriff reform process has lacked transparency and has shut out the community. That includes discussions among token reform groups that are divulged only in meeting minutes or by press release, she said.
“The city leadership needs to be reminded why we’re doing reform efforts in the first place: inmate abuse that got city leaders’ attention.” She’s referring to several high-profile lawsuits that resulted in multi-million dollar settlements in the past decade. Calderon said there is a larger public policy discussion that should take place, a conversation that should include all the costs of reform.
The $24 million is primarily to address chronic staff shortages at the jail. Calderon said city leaders need to remember that voters haven’t forgotten what they were told when the city asked for $378 million in bond funding for a new jail ten years ago. Back then, voters were promised the new jail would be so efficient it wouldn’t need more staff. “Now we’re being told something else,” Calderon said.
Calderon acknowledges that with a budget presentation on Monday, there isn’t much time to make big changes. “We’re looking for a parallel process,” she said, one track that deals with the staff shortages in the sheriff’s department and another that looks at finding ways to reduce inmate populations.
“When you seriously look at reducing jail population, you can reallocate those funds to more effective services and rehabilitative efforts,” Calderon said. “There’s no prioritization for that right now.”
Maes told The Independent the one piece left out of the reform efforts is how to reduce jail populations. The ACLU estimates that between 54 and 57 percent of people in Denver’s jail are “presumptively innocent:” people awaiting trial who are presumed innocent until found guilty. Some are public safety risks, but many just can’t afford bail.
Maes suggested the Denver Sheriff’s Department could work with judges on not incarcerating people who aren’t a risk to public safety or a flight risk. She said that Denver makes little use of the approach of releasing people on their own recognizance. The other side is that bails are set so high that many can’t afford it, and there’s no good data on just what a reasonable amout of bail should be for people at low income levels. The city also should work on non-jail alternatives, such as treatment programs, particularly for people who “act out” because they are mentally ill or have substance abuse problems.
“Let’s have that conversation,” Maes said. “Too many people are in jail” who don’t need to be. “That’s our addiction problem – an addiction to jails and prisons and we’ve got to break that habit.”
Sheriff’s Department spokesman Simon Crittle said the jail isn’t overcrowded, but it is under-resourced. “We can’t control the justice process that goes on beyond our walls. That’s up to the judges and to the legislature that makes the laws,” he said.
He agrees that an increased use of personal recognizance bond is one solution, but said, “It’s a little unfair to say” that the programs suggested by the group aren’t happening. Crittle pointed to counseling and other similar programs operated within the jail as well as outside of the justice system by nonprofit organizations.
The Tuesday letter also was signed by representatives of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, the Criminal Defense Initiative and the Drug Policy Alliance. They will be at the City Council meeting on Monday to testify about their concerns.
This week, law enforcement officials gathered in Washington, D.C. to address the issue of how to reduce jail and prison populations. It’s also a topic on President Barack Obama’s mind: He announced last Saturday he would spend the last year of his presidency working on criminal justice reform that would both reduce crime and incarceration rates.
Photo credit: Guian Bolisay, Creative Commons, Flickr.