Our View

Arapahoe County Ballot Issue 1A: Jail safety outweighs some legitimate concerns


Deputies assaulted by inmates more frequently than ever before.

Electrical systems, walls, floors and plumbing stressed and strained to the limits.

Inmates living three to a cell.

Little room to provide inmates with needed treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues, leaving them at heightened risk of reoffending when released back into the community.

Those are just some of the reasons Arapahoe County officials say a new jail is needed to replace a 33-year-old facility originally built to house 386 inmates. Today, the Arapahoe County jail on South Potomac Street near Centennial Airport routinely holds more than 1,100 inmates. The jail — with the ability today to accommodate 1,458 inmates following a 2002 expansion — regularly brushes up against the 80% capacity recommendation by the National Institute of Corrections.

“The stress on everyone is building,” Sheriff Tyler Brown said. “It’s like a pressure cooker.”

Ballot Issue 1A asks voters to provide the funding for this $465 million undertaking. If approved, the measure would raise the property tax levy by 3.4 mills. The owner of a $380,000 home would pay an additional $5.66 a month, or about $68 a year. Residents would still have the lowest mill levy in the metro area, according to the county.

The majority of the money — roughly $399 million, according to county documents — would go toward design and construction of the new facility. But officials say they are also committed to providing programs that address mental health and substance abuse, and providing programs to keep nonviolent and first-time offenders out of jail. A citizens oversight committee would keep watch over the spending.

We encourage you to vote yes on this ballot question.

But just as county commissioners and the sheriff have made a strong case that the facility needs to be replaced, opponents have made salient points against building a new jail.

A coalition was formed to oppose the measure in early October, and includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, as well as other groups that work to promote civil rights.

The coalition says roughly two-thirds of inmates in the jail have not been convicted of a crime, but rather are in a pre-trial phase and cannot afford bond. Lowering or eliminating bond for low-level offenders and expanding the court schedule from five to six or seven days a week would vastly reduce the jail population, members say.

The group also maintains that the nearly half a billion dollars that would go toward a new jail would be better spent on community-based services and programs for those with mental health and addiction issues in an effort to keep people out of jail in the first place.

Addressing the criminal code by reducing the number of offenses punishable by incarceration has also been suggested.

No doubt, the entire criminal justice system could use some help when it comes to addressing the crisis of offenders who struggle with mental illness, substance abuse and poverty.

We believe the 1A opposition’s arguments should resonate over the long haul and across the broader landscape of the state and nation — but we also believe those arguments are not reasons to deny the county a new jail.

The need to replace the jail is real and there may not be a better time for it. County officials fear the price tag of a new jail will only go up. Meanwhile, the cramped conditions will continue to take their toll until something is done.

The new facility would come with 1,612 beds, 154 more than the current jail. It would also allow for larger kitchen and laundry facilities and a bigger book-and-release center. Those portions of the jail are landlocked by the current facility’s housing units and have not been expanded — nor can they be.

With so many people in such a confined space, tension and violence have been on the rise, the sheriff says.

A jail should be a safe place, for deputies and for inmates. A larger facility would certainly help mitigate safety concerns.

But equally important, a jail plays a role in the safety of the community at large by providing proper treatment and educational opportunities, in an effort to keep inmates from reoffending. We would have liked to have seen a more detailed plan for how this will be accomplished.

While mental health and substance abuse programs are included in the ballot language, no specific dollar amounts are tied to these initiatives. If 1A passes, it’s going to be up to all of us to keep an eye on how this money — your money — is spent and demand that dollars go to programs and treatment geared toward helping inmates heal and become productive members of society.

Ballot Issue 1A is not perfect. The question we must ask ourselves, however, is this: Does Arapahoe County need a new jail?



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