Voices Growing Louder in Jail Debate

April 2005

On May 3, Denverites will vote on the intiative to fund and build a new downtown justice center with jails and courtrooms. It seems that everyone agrees the present system isn't working or safe for inmates or guards. The Denver Post's Diane Carman today reports on a four-hour guided tour of the Denver County Jail and the lockups and courtrooms at the City and County Building.

We'd seen the TV commercials for the jail bond measure and read the stories, so we thought we knew what to expect. We were wrong. .... it was crowded everywhere. But the experience of Building 6, built in the 1950s in the gruesome Alcatraz style and filled to twice its capacity, was appalling, as was standing among 24 inmates housed on bunk beds wedged into an airless storage room. It looked like something out of the Middle Passage.

Carman says that by the end of the tour, the skeptics had been converted. She bets that every one of them will vote for the new jail.

Every day, hundreds of public employees go to work in these inadequate, inhumane, unsafe facilities with sick, disturbed, dangerous people.

Opponents of the measure say more money is needed for alternatives to jail, not a new jail. They point to the success of other counties, particularly with respect to the mentally ill.

Boulder County launched a program in 2000 to treat mentally ill offenders outside of jail, nearly wiping out recidivism among that group. Arapahoe County intends to emulate the program this year.

You can read about Boulder's PACE program here. Proponents point to existing and new programs in place to offer alternatives. Among Denver's established efforts are electronic monitoring and allowing juveniles to do community service instead of jail time. (Although, I'm not sure why the juvenile issue is relevant since juveniles are not housed at the County Jail.) New efforts include:

a program to rehabilitate up to 225 prostitutes and a "homeless court" set to debut in May for resolving charges against homeless offenders. In addition, a 32-member committee will be set up soon to study the city's diversionary programs and recommend changes.

Opponents say the study should be completed before we decide on the new jail. We don't know how many new beds we'll need. It's too expensive. There's no reason the old jail can't be renovated. The money should be spent on more alternative programs. They also would like to see post-incaceration programs since they are working so well in Boulder and Jeffco to reduce recidivism. For more arguments against the jail, visit the Progressive Coalition page here. For arguments in favor, visit Safe Denver. For the pros and cons in one place by the Colorado Bar Association, go here. Specifically, the Bar Association page says this is what you are voting on:

  • A new downtown courthouse with thirty-five courtrooms to house district and county criminal courts and juvenile courts
  • A new downtown detention center with 1,500 beds and two arraignment courtrooms
  • A separate parking structure with 451 public parking spaces
  • Close of Smith Road buildings 6 through 12 and erection of a new building that would house 384 inmates.
  • Move of the civil courts from leased space in the Adams Mark to the City and County Building
  • A total expenditure not to exceed $378 million

The Colorado Bar Association has not taken a position on the jail, but the Denver Bar Association officially supports it. As to what's different this time than in 2001 when Denver voters defeated a new jail proposal, Mayor Hickenlooper points to three things:

The new jail won't involve higher taxes, there will be a set limit on the size of a new downtown facility, and it will include a new courthouse.

It's a tough call. As someone who spends a fair amount of time at both the Denver County jail visiting clients and in courtrooms at the City and County Building, I'm still undecided. Today, I'm inclined to vote "yes."