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Police chiefs, sheriff spar over inmate caps

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Adams County turns away Aurora prisoners, setting off chiefs’ airing of grievance

By Crystal Nelson

BRIGHTON — Citing public safety and calling it a crisis, municipal police chiefs from the area voiced their frustrations over the Adams County Sheriff Department’s recent refusal to accept prisoners from the City of Aurora.
     “In the last week and for the first time, seven prisoners have been rejected by the sheriff who were sentenced to jail by our judges…” Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said. “Those seven prisoners reside today in the Denver County Jail with Aurora taxpayers paying for them to be lodged there.”

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    Oates said the seven prisoners rejected were among 19 sentenced to the jail in the last week. He said although the seven individuals are being sentenced for misdemeanors, they have a collective history of 36 prior felony arrests and 64 prior misdemeanor arrests.
    “My point is that they are not just being charged with a misdemeanor today, it’s that they have a history of failing to comply with the law, failing to appear in court, history of significant violence,” Oates said. “These folks belong in jail even if they are for modest misdemeanor sentences.”
    The frustrations stem from a cap approved by the Adams County Board of Commissioners on municipalities in October 2011 due to the staffing and budget issues for the Sheriff’s Office. Although the board of commissioners rescinded the cap during its April 15 meeting, Sheriff Doug Darr continues to enforce the cap, which only allows for the intake of 30 inmates from the nine municipalities within the county. The cap does not include prisoners sentenced for domestic violence.
    Thornton Police Chief Randy Nelson said over the past two years the cities in Adams County have shown a cooperative effort to reduce the total municipal population. He said collectively they have reduced the number of municipal prisoners in the county jail from an average of 105 to an average of 35 over the past month and a half.
    Nelson said the number of municipal prisoners account for about 3 percent of all the inmates in the jail, and Oates said even if the number of municipal prisoners was modestly increased to 60 prisoners, municipal inmates would only make up 5 percent of the total inmate population.
    “We don’t believe the modest number of municipal prisoners in the jail is the sole and compelling reason for the staffing shortages and the challenges that the sheriff has,” he said. “We believe there is ample opportunity for a more global resolution of this problem.”
    Oates said they have repeatedly suggested the Sheriff Department take savings designated for additional staff and use it to lodge municipal prisoners in other settings.
    Darr said he was disappointed in the police chiefs’ decision to go public with the issue but maintains the problem is really a safety issue in regards to the number of staff and the volume of inmates at the jail.
    According to Darr, the jail has the highest inmate-to-staff ratio of any agency in the state, a ratio that’s twice the national recommended average.
    Jail Division Chief Kurt Ester said because of the department’s staffing, they have had to rely on overtime — about 42,000 hours of it — to ensure the employees and the inmates are safe.
     “I’m working these folks to death just to keep them safe as possible, and we’re doing everything we can to maintain that,” he said.
    Although the Adams County Board of Commissioners have approved funds for 13 more deputies, Darr said it takes a year from the time the position is advertised before they’re deployed for service. He said the department is actively recruiting for those new positions now.
    In response to the prisoners that were turned away on May 15, Darr said Aurora was notified that week they were over their bed space allocation but their phone call was never retuned. He said the prisoners were not allowed in the jail because “we had come to the end of what we could do.”
    Darr also said they have previously offered the municipalities 60 beds for their inmates but with restrictions that would not allow the lowest-level offenders into the jail. He said he was told they didn’t want him to tell them what to do.
    Darr said the jail has also worked with police to create an exception, where if the city has an exceptional circumstance and need to have someone in the jail, they have the option to call the jail and ask for that flexibility which will be granted “every single time.”
    “Interestingly enough, in the last two and a half years, we have only had one single request for that by one agency, and it was granted immediately because it should have been,” he said.
    Darr said the problem can’t be solved with money and that they need a better system to determine which inmates need to be in jail. While he recognizes the jail houses municipal inmates who have committed more-serious crimes, he said it has also housed inmates for rabies tags violations, dogs at large, obscene language, seatbelt violations and a 360-day sentence for loitering. He also said in fairness to the cities, he recognizes the jail also houses inmates for offenses that are more serious than this.
    He asked whether the jail should be housing non-violent offenders or whether alternatives to incarceration should be considered.
    “I don’t believe the problem is going to be solved until we have a combination of things – the evidence-based risk assessment process and the addition of resources so that we can do our jobs well,” he said.