The lines have been drawn. Sides have been chosen. Dueling media campaigns are about to begin in the fight for votes over whether Denver gets a new jail.

In one corner we have Citizens for a Safe Denver, led by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and with a team that includes “[Denver attorney] Frances Koncilja, Community College of Denver president Christine Johnson, Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau chief executive Richard Scharf and former Ministerial Alliance president Reginald Holmes.” The team, which has the support of Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and five City Council members, has retained Sheila MacDonald to manage the campaign. MacDonald most recently ran November’s successful Fastraks campaign. This week, the Denver Post backed the new jail.

On the other side, will be Campaign for Effective Jail Alternatives, set to launch next week, with the backing of Colorado Progressive Coalition, a statewide civil-rights group. Here is a statement as to why the group strongly opposes the jail. They are joined by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition .

Does Denver needs a new jail complex? Voters will decide May 3. Mayor Hickenlooper has a lot riding on the initiative. If it loses, it will be viewed by many as a personal loss for him, possibly impacting his political future. Let’s put politics aside and ask, do we need it?

Here are the basic pros and cons:

Proponents, including most of Denver’s elected officials, argue that the city needs the proposed $378 million project to ease crowding at its existing jails.

Opponents question whether the city has focused enough effort on alternative programs – such as drug treatment and home-based, electronic monitoring – to keep people out of jail.

Both sides are correct. The jail is overcrowded and outdated. And that means dangerous to both prisoners and guards. The county jail houses persons charged with serious crimes who cannot make bond. It is also home to violent offenders waiting transport to a state prison following sentencing as well as those arrested for parole violations awaiting hearings and those arrested on charges from other states pending extradition decisions. Some are mentally ill.

The County Jail also houses non-violent offenders who have been convicted of misdemeanors.
When a jail is over-crowded, sometimes the violent end up with the non-violent. The lack of adequate facilities means that in some sections of the jail, inmates are kept in their tiny cells 21 hours a day, along with a cellmate . Meals for these inmates are slid under the cell door–no cafeteria for them. The noise level is outrageous during the day. These kinds of conditions can breed violence.

The jail is located at 1-70 and Havana — miles from the City and County building. Every day those with court are bused into Denver and bused back at the end of the day. Problems sometimes develop between inmates in the courthouse hallways and on the buses.

The new jail will not result in increased taxes. It’s in a downtown area, just two blocks from the City and County building. A walkway would prevent prisoners from having to be bused or walked through public areas. Here’s what the new jail entails:

Denver’s proposal calls for building a justice center with 1,500 jail beds and 35 courtrooms on the 400 and 500 blocks of West Colfax Avenue by 2009 and expanding the city’s existing Smith Road jail by 2012. Mayor John Hickenlooper plans to finance the project without a tax increase by issuing new debt to replace other obligations that will be paid off in coming years. Ultimately, property tax amounting to about $110 annually for a $250,000 home would be used to pay off the justice-center bonds, though it will not represent an increase from current taxation levels.

Proponents say the current jail structure is woefully outdated and lacking in ability to provide either rehabilitative services or a safe environment for its occupants. Opponents respond that Denver incarcerates too many and needs to spend more funds to support electronic monitoring, greater use of intensive supervised probation and other alternatives to jail, as well as rehabilitative programs. Their concern that if Denver spends so much money on a new jail, there won’t be enough left to fund alternative programs and services. Mayor Hickenlooper has responded with a pledge to substantially increase funding for diversion and rehabilitation programs through 2009.

Bottom line: We need both more spending on jail alternatives and programs that reduce the risk of recidivism and a more modernized jail with better and safer conditions. The question remains, however, do we need a new jail or just an updated one?