Fall­ing fig­ure may be a plus

Den­ver of­fi­cials hope new prac­tices are be­hind the de­cline.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Noelle Phillips

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.”

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