New data provides a glimpse into Colorado’s county jails

Several counties, including Jefferson and Denver, failed to report required data to the state, resulting in incomplete data

Former recreation yard at the Alamosa County jail, Dec. 20, 2018. Public defenders are seeking the release of inmates from jail before a COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Evan Semón)

On Jan. 1, there were at least 9,802 people locked up in Colorado’s 57 jails. At least 409 of them were held in solitary confinement, 1,214 were homeless and 140 were waiting for a mental health competency evaluation before going to trial. Most of them had yet to be convicted of a crime. 

Those are some of the takeaways from a first-of-its-kind report released on Tuesday, shedding light on who’s serving time in Colorado’s jails and under what conditions. 

The data was collected after lawmakers in 2019 passed a bill requiring jails to report quarterly data to the Division of Criminal Justice in order to help them write new policies and better understand Colorado’s jails.

The data covers various time frames, including the last year, the last quarter in 2019 from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 or a “snapshot” on Jan. 1 this year. The data includes information on why inmates are being held in jails and for how long, their race and ethnicity, and the number of inmates who have died behind bars. 

An analysis by The Colorado Independent found there were at least 13 counties with jails that did not report any data to the state, including Denver. A spokesperson for the Denver sheriff’s office said the county plans to report the data but has not yet explained why it will be submitted late. 

Several counties did not report race and ethnicity data, including Jefferson County, which has one of the largest jails in the state with 1,638 beds, according to the data. Jenny Fulton, the director of public affairs for Jefferson County, said the county can’t report race and ethnicity data that is compatible with the state’s system without hiring new staff or installing a new jail management system. Fulton said the county does not plan to hire additional staff or install a new data system to report the data to the state due to a lack of funding.

Division of Criminal Justice, by law, has to notify jails that are not in compliance with the reporting requirements. The law allows a county to not report some information as long as it explains why.

The Denver County jail on Feb. 19, 2020. The county did not report jail data to the state. (Photo by John Herrick)

Of the approximate 1,214 homeless people who were booked in Colorado’s jails on Jan. 1, the greatest share, 283, were locked up in El Paso County, which has 1,837 beds, among the most jail beds in the state. The county did not respond to a request for comment. 

Separately, at least 353 people were detained on a municipal charge that day, such as violating an open-container law. Lawmakers hoped fewer of these people would be incarcerated when, in 2019, they banned cash bail for petty and municipal offenses and set up new rules to require more timely bond hearings.

Solitary confinement, also known as administrative segregation, means that the inmate was held in a cell for at least 22 hours per day.

Three-quarters of the people in Colorado jails on Jan. 1 had not been sentenced, according to the data. That share is even larger for black and Native American inmates. 

Among those yet to be convicted of a crime were 140 people deemed incompetent to stand trial. Due to a shortage in mental health treatment capacity, Colorado continues to pay millions for violating a 2016 federal court order that people waiting in jail for a competency evaluation should wait no longer than 28 days. Some people have waited months in jail for such evaluations.

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The data does not include information on the number of inmates with substance-use disorder after a provision requiring such information was stripped from the bill last year, in part because lawmakers worried it would be difficult to standardize substance-use disorder evaluations. County jails across the state are ill-equipped to treat inmates with opioid use disorder, with only a handful across the state offering inmates medication-assisted treatment during their stay and many forcing inmates into painful withdrawal. Lawmakers this year are seeking to require jails to offer inmates at least one form of medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, during their stay. That treatment, according to HB-1017, includes methadone, buprenorphine or naltrexone. These medications ease withdrawal and reduce cravings. Several counties oppose the mandate, saying it will be costly and could prolong an inmate’s time in jail if they are required to provide them MAT. 

The next reporting deadline is April 1. The state then has 30 days to compile the data. 

Here are some other highlights from the jail study.

Total inmates (on Jan. 1, 2020): 9,802 

Total inmates (on Jan. 1, 2020) sentenced: 2,429

Total inmates (on Jan. 1, 2020) without a sentence: 7,296

 Number of deaths (From Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2019): 7

Average length of stay for a felony conviction (prior year): 50.3 days 

Average length of stay for a misdemeanor conviction (prior year): 20.9 days 

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  1. I think it is so weird and kind of dumb that the county can’t report on the race and ethnicity of an inmate without getting an new jail management system. That information is crucial for analytics. They should just install a new updated jail management system that allows them to report such things.

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