An old problem resurfaces….what should we do about Denver’s old and overcrowded Denver County Jail? Built for 1,500, it’s home to 2,000 right now.

Deputies fear for their safety. Inmates en route to trial are escorted through the same halls in the City and County Building as jurors, witnesses and attorneys. The city is ripe for a lawsuit over the conditions, experts have warned.

In 2001 , voters rejected a ballot initiative to fund construction of a new jail on the site of existing one at Smith Road (off Havana.) Mayor John Hickenlooper has hired consultant James Mejia , a former Wellington Webb advisor, to head up a new project that would put a new justice center with a jail and courtrooms on the site of the Rocky Mountain News building on Colfax and Delaware. The city already owns the building. It is in acquisition talks with owners of the properties on the adjacent block to add to the center. The project is expected to cost $300 million and would be financed by bonds. Will voters go for it? Already the “Not in my neighborhood” voices are coming out in the Golden Triangle area.

We should have funded the new jail in 2001. The Rocky Mountain News site is ideal…two blocks from the City and County Building and one block from the Denver Police Department complex, which includes a city jail and courtrooms. Mejia says he would prefer to be working on a project that was aimed at preventing incarceration rather than providing for more of it. A laudable goal, but as Mejia realizes, we have to face reality. As Denver follows the national trend of locking people up in increasing numbers, we have to provide adequate facilities to house them and also provide safety to the guards and others who come into contact with them. It’s better to build the facility now. If we keep burying our heads in the sand on the issue, Denver will end up paying millions in damages and legal fees when the inevitable lawsuits are filed. No one wants a jail, a halfway house or a mental facility in their neighborhood. But they have to go somewhere, and Colfax and Delaware is a commercial strip, and another complex, built correctly, could blend in seamlessly.