Falling figure may be a plus
Denver officials hope new practices are behind the decline.
Denver’s jail population is on the decline after reaching nearcrisis levels last winter, and officials hope that several new practices will continue to reduce the number of people who spend time in the city’s two jails.
In February, the Denver Sheriff Department faced criticism from its deputies’ union and community activists, who said crowded conditions were leading to an increase in violence between inmates and against jail staff members. In some sections of the Downtown Detention Center, inmates were sleeping on pallets on the floor.
Since January, the average daily population at both jails has declined from 2,277 to 2,152 in June, according to data provided by the sheriff’s department. The average daily population has dropped at the Downtown Detention Center, where inmates are booked after release, and the County Jail on Smith Road, where people serve their sentences.
“We’re getting a lot of people in a very closed area,” Sheriff Patrick Firman said. “When we can thin that out, it’s less stressful on the staff and on the inmates.”
Firman attributed the population drop to collaboration among his department, the Denver Police Department, Denver’s District Attorney’s Office, city judges and the Denver Crime Prevention and Control Commission. Earlier this year, Firman and city officials promised the City Council that they would tackle the problem.
“There’s not one answer,” he said.
Regina Huerter, executive director of the city’s Office of Behavioral Health Strategies and Crime Prevention and Control Commission, said the first step was asking, “How do we help people not get into jail in the first place?”
In response, her office created new programs, including a Clinical Intervention Response Unit that assists police officers responding to people who are having a mental health crisis. Since its creation in the spring of 2016, the co-responders, who are counselors, have contacted 1,300 people, Huerter said. It’s unknown how many of those people would have ended up in jail, she said, but she and the staff believe their work has helped people avoid time behind bars.
The city also established an Outreach Court, held regularly at the Denver Rescue Mission. Since December, 161 people have passed through the court and 74 failure-to-appear warrants were cleared, meaning those people did not go to jail, Huerter said.
At the same time, the number of people cited without being taken to jail by Denver police officers has increased. Last month, 1,471 people were given citations compared with 1,258 citations written in January. Police officers aren’t being instructed to issue more citations, but they’ve been trained to consider that option rather than taking people to jail, officials said.
Meanwhile, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann changed her office policy regarding prosecutors’ initial involvement in cases. Prosecutors now attend first hearings, instead of waiting for a sus- pect’s second appearance in court, district attorney spokesman Ken Lane said.
Sometimes judges are reluctant to set bond without a prosecutor’s input, so a person is sent from court back to the Downtown Detention Center for more than a week to await his or her second hearing. Now, that person might be released after posting bail.
Denver also has joined a national movement to change how bonds are set. As a result, more people are released on personal recognizance bonds, meaning they don’t have to pay money, or are given home detention, where they’re monitored but not sitting in a cell, said Greg Mauro, director of community corrections in Denver.
Also, personnel who process jail detainees for release were assigned to later shifts beginning in 2016, meaning they are on duty to assist people after the courts close and judges hand down decisions. They also were moved to an office at the jail, which eliminated transportation issues that sometimes kept detainees in jail overnight or through weekends.
“If you’ve done what you should do to get out of jail, we shouldn’t have barriers in your way,” Mauro said.
Officials believe their efforts to lower the jails’ population are working but say it is too soon to know whether the population will continue to decline or whether violence will decrease as a result. And the jail population could increase because of other reasons.
It takes collaboration, because the sheriff’s department doesn’t control the number of people arrested, Firman said. Its deputies manage the jails and the people once they’re inside.
“We want to divert people and keep them from coming in the first place,” Firman said. “We know the longer they stay in jail, the more difficult it is to integrate back into the community. We also understand there are people where jail is the only appropriate place.”