Colo. county may have to release jail inmates early or refuse to book arrestees

Budget constraints have forced the sheriff's office to lower expenses by reducing the number of available beds by almost 250


Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — Inmates at the Jefferson County jail may be released early and some arrestees may be turned away after the sheriff’s office closes a floor of the facility on Jan. 1 to facilitate a $5.5 million budget cut.

The closure of the jail’s seventh floor will reduce the number of available beds from 1,392 to 1,148 — far less than the space needed for the approximately 1,300 people the jail houses every day.

Inmates at the Jefferson County jail may be released early and some arrestees may be turned away after the sheriff’s office closes a floor of the facility on Jan. 1 to facilitate a $5.5 million budget cut. (Photo/Jefferson County Sheriff's Office)
Inmates at the Jefferson County jail may be released early and some arrestees may be turned away after the sheriff’s office closes a floor of the facility on Jan. 1 to facilitate a $5.5 million budget cut. (Photo/Jefferson County Sheriff's Office)

The strategies the sheriff’s office will use to limit the jail population will cause ripple effects across the Jefferson County criminal justice system, Sheriff Jeff Shrader said. And his office has already received notification that another multi-million budget cut is coming next year, despite a jail population that grew about 4% annually in recent years.

“I’m likely facing in 2021 closing another floor of the jail,” he said. “And I have no idea how to accomplish that.”

The reduction of the jail beds comes as Colorado lawmakers and communities grapple with rising jail populations. State lawmakers earlier this year passed a number of bills to reduce the number of people incarcerated, including a series of laws meant to speed inmates’ release after posting bond, and reducing fines and fees.

‘The fact that the sheriff is saying they’re going to let all these low level offenders go, maybe that’s not a bad thing,” said Denise Maes, public policy director at the ACLU of Colorado.

But the budget cuts also reduced staffing at the sheriff’s office and for the district attorney. Shrader froze hiring for 51 positions over the past year, including investigators and jail staff. Jefferson County District Attorney Pete Weir laid off five people and left four positions open. Units dedicated to solving crimes against children and the elderly bore the brunt of the eliminations, along with programs meant to divert people from jails and prisons.

“They’re now cutting into muscle, not fat,” Weir said.

Leaders from Jefferson County’s criminal justice system have met all year to discuss how to adjust to the projected cuts, Weir said. They discussed how to change bail and sentencing to alleviate pressure on the jail, as well as increasing use of alternative sentencing programs. Judges already often set exceedingly low bail amounts for people thanks to reform from earlier in the decade, Weir said. Lower bail means people are more likely to be able to leave jail while their criminal case proceeds through court.

In Jefferson County, about 55% of the jail’s population are people awaiting trial who cannot post their bail, Shrader said. But the sheriff’s office cannot release those people without a judge’s permission. So Shrader is left to manage his jail’s population by early release — permitted by a longstanding judge’s order — or not allowing people through the doors in the first place.

Maes said that much of the responsibility for jail population lies with judges and prosecutors — sheriffs can only accept who courts and police send them. Serious changes to bail practices would reduce jail populations significantly without affecting public safety, she said.

“People aren’t held on bail because they are more dangerous,” she said. “It’s because they’re too poor to pay the money to get out.”

If the Jefferson County jail’s population exceeds capacity by 2%, the sheriff’s office will take the following steps, in sequential order:

Inmates who have served at least 50% of their sentence will be released in order of who has served the greatest portion of their sentence. Inmates who have not served the minimum sentence required by law for their conviction will not be eligible, nor will those who are barred from early release by a judge.

If step one does not reduce the population enough, jail staff will stop booking in people arrested on suspicion of most misdemeanors and low-level felonies. The jail will only accept those sent to jail by a judge, those arrested on warrants for jail-able offenses and those facing class three felonies and higher.

In extreme situations, the jail will stop accepting any new arrivals. Arresting agencies will have to keep custody of the person until space is available.

Shrader said he expects to start early releases in January and that he’ll likely have to start using the second step in the summer. Adding more beds to the facility is not an option, he said. Almost all of the cells are already double or triple bunked.

“Cramming more people into a space isn’t necessarily going to solve that problem, it may make it worse,” Shrader said.

The sheriff’s office will continue to contract with the U.S. Marshals Service, which pays to use up to 64 jail beds. Shrader decided to keep the contract because it pays nearly double what it costs to maintain each bed, he said.

The cuts to the sheriff’s office follow years of budget growth, from $95 million in 2016 to $112 million in 2019. But that growth was needed to keep wages competitive and to keep up with the rising costs of everything along the booming Front Range, Shrader said.

County leaders divvied up the budget cuts in the most thoughtful way possible, County Commissioner Casey Tighe said. The sheriff’s office faced a larger budget reduction earlier this year when commissioners considered a 7% reduction across the entire county, but the board later reduced the impact on the agency.

The county is limited by the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which requires local governments to return all tax money they collect above an amount calculated by a formula. Jefferson County has returned tens of millions of dollars to its 600,000 residents over the last four years, which local leaders said is needed for services. But voters in November voted down a measure that would allow the county to keep the revenues beyond the TABOR formula.

“I just don’t feel like it’s keeping up the growth we’re seeing,” Tighe said.

Early releases from jail and limits on new bookings are not new in Jefferson County, said Ted Mink, who worked as the county’s sheriff from 2003 to 2014. Similar measures were imposed before the jail’s expansion in 1999. Jail staff are careful not to release anybody who could pose a threat to the community, he said.

“If they’re violent, they’re going to find space,” he said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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