Criminal justice reformers decry call for new Arapahoe County jail

Coalition says answer to overcrowding is fewer inmates, not bigger jail


Arapahoe County officials say the county jail is dangerously overcrowded, worn out and short on space to conduct rehabilitative programs. They're asking voters to approve Ballot Issue 1A, which would raise property taxes to pay for a modern, bigger jail with room to address mental illness and addiction issues among inmates.

To Juston Cooper, county officials are right about the jail's problems, but wrong about how to fix it.

“They're addressing a symptom, not a cause,” said Cooper, the deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, and the leader of a coalition of community groups who say there are better ways to address the jail's problems.

The cause of the jail's problems, Cooper said, is the nature of incarceration itself.

“Many of the jail's inmates have mental health and substance abuse issues, and they need help, but you shouldn't have to go to jail to get those services,” Cooper said. “You can't incarcerate your way out of this public health issue.”

The current jail is being pushed to its limits, Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown said in a virtual tour of the jail posted to Facebook.

“The jail is crowded,” Brown said. “Space is tight. The stress on everyone is building. It's like a pressure cooker.”

The jail, built in 1986 and located on South Potomac Street near Centennial Airport, was originally designed to house 386 inmates, Brown said. Expansions brought the current maximum inmate capacity to 1,458 — thanks in large part to cells designed to house one inmate that now house three.

The jail routinely holds more than 1,100 inmates at a time, Brown said, pushing up against best practices to not exceed 80% of total capacity.

High inmate counts are stressing the jail's infrastructure and facilities like the kitchen, infirmary and laundry, Brown said, and assaults on inmates and staff are at an all-time high.

As many as two-thirds or more of the inmates have not been convicted of a crime, Brown said in September, and are awaiting trial with many unable to afford bail.

Ballot Issue 1A seeks to raise funds to pay for a $464 million jail. The measure would increase the county's mill levy by 3.4, and would increase property taxes by $19.08 per $100,000 of assessed property value, or about $68 per year on a home valued at $380,000.

To Cooper, the answer isn't a bigger jail, but fewer inmates.

“If you downsize the population, you right-size the facility,” Cooper said, adding that bail reform could also reduce the population of people accused of nonviolent misdemeanors.

Cooper said the coalition also includes the Colorado ACLU, Colorado Interfaith Alliance, Colorado Black Women for Political Action and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.

The Libertarian Party of Arapahoe County has also come out against the measure.

“Many of the people in there are accused of drug crimes,” said Joshua Lallement, the county party's spokesman. “People own their bodies, and they should be able to do what they want with them.”

Lallement said the party is also opposed to tax increases.

“It seems like the government's solution is always to ask for more money,” Lallement said. “Asking citizens who are already hurting from the high costs of living and housing to pay more taxes hurts the average law-abiding citizen.”

Cooper said he'd like to see the county come back next year with a more comprehensive proposal.

“Let's take a step back and ask what would really serve Arapahoe County's public health and safety concerns,” Cooper said.


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