Shared from the 1/28/2020 The Denver Post eEdition


Inmates out early

Officials weighing options after early releases to reduce jail overcrowding because of a $5.5 million budget cut


A view from an inmate’s cell at the Jefferson County Detention Center’s seventh floor, which was closed at the beginning of the year due to a $5.5 million budget cut.

Photos by Andy Cross, The Denver Post


Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Shrader has had to release prisoners to reduce overcrowding at the jail since the seventh floor was closed.

Ivan Alvarez counted the days until he’d be released from the Jefferson County Detention Center on a calendar, crossing each out with a big X.

Just over a week ago, when the 26-year-old still had 18 days to go on his 264-day sentence for driving under the influence, his cell door opened unexpectedly.

“They just came in and opened the door and told me I was going home,” Alvarez said.

He was one of 68 inmates released early from the jail in the last 10 days as Sheriff Jeff Shrader tries to combat overcrowding brought about by a $5.5 million budget cut that prompted the sheriff to close an entire floor of the jail and reduce the number of available beds to 1,148 from 1,392.

Overcrowding is a problem increasingly faced by local jails across the state, and officials in Jefferson County and beyond have considered a variety of solutions, from setting lower bonds to alternative sentences to building bigger jails and securing bigger budgets.

“It was a huge surprise,” Alvarez said of his early release. “It’s unbelievable. But once I was out, I was very happy, and grateful for getting released early.”

The early releases are the first of several steps Shrader says the jail may need to take to keep the inmate population at a manageable level in the coming months — unless the jail’s average population drops significantly or its budget increases significantly.

Since the budget cut was brought about by the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which requires local governments to return all tax money they collected above a certain amount, and voters in November rejected a measure that would have lifted that restriction, some county officials are now considering a variety of ways to reduce the jail’s population without forcing the early release of convicted inmates.

“Everyone is stepping up about what the options are, and to respond to what the voters told us, which is that we need to figure this out within the budget,” Commissioner Casey Tighe said Thursday.

Others see a budget increase as the ultimate necessary solution.

“Public safety needs to be preeminent when it comes to decisions made in the county,” said Peter Weir, First Judicial District Attorney, whose jurisdiction includes Jefferson County. “What is critical for a healthy, vibrant community, some place you want to raise a family, start a business, retire? It all starts with feeling safe. In my view, this starts to erode public safety.”

So far, the majority of the inmates released early were serving time for driving under the influence, drug possession, probation violations or thefts, among a smattering of other charges. All had completed at least 55% of their sentences. Some were released a day early, in other cases, inmates shaved months from their sentences.

That doesn’t sit well with Shrader or Weir.

“Judges take their sentencing function extraordinary seriously,” Weir said. “And also in my experience, judges are not eager to sentence to jail. These are individuals where they feel they have explored all other alternatives and either the Department of Corrections or the jail is appropriate given the nature of the crime and the history of the defendant.”

Tighe, who sits on the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee — an advisory board made up of law enforcement, judges, magistrates, service providers and other stakeholders that considers best practices for criminal justice in the county — said the committee has been involved in conversations with a variety of agencies about how to address the jail’s overcrowding and budget constraints without compromising public safety.

On Jan. 10, the county’s pretrial services division launched a new program that allows certain arrestees to be set free before seeing a judge or receiving a bond, Dennis Goodwin, director of justice services for Jefferson County, said.

“The police would transport them to jail, we would do a risk assessment and also look at their criminal history and some other factors, plug it into our standards, and if they met the standards and we felt comfortable that they don’t present significant risk to public safety and they’ll show up for court, we will release them within a few hours,” Goodwin said.

That moves arrestees out of the jail much more quickly than if they had to wait to see a judge, receive a bond and then pay it, he said. In the two weeks since the program started, about a dozen people have qualified for such pre-advisement release, Goodwin said.

It’s similar to an arrest by summons, he said, which occurs when a police officer opts not to physically arrest someone when pressing criminal charges, but instead orders the person to appear in court to face the charges at a later date.

“I was an officer years ago, and we used the summons quite a bit,” Goodwin said. “But sometimes you’re in a situation where you know you’re going to have to come back if you don’t get the person away from the situation. Sometimes you’d like to give them a summons, but the behavior or the atmosphere or the people around requires you take it a step further.”

He added that pretrial staff give out pre-advisement releases to qualifying arrestees at their discretion; if someone qualifies on paper but staff have reservations, they’ll keep that person in jail to see a judge.

Jeffrey Pilkington, chief judge of the First Judicial District, said that while the district’s judges are aware of the challenges at the jail, it won’t impact the way judges set bonds or sentences. Judges must follow the guidelines set forth in the law, he said.

“The statute requires us to really place two things first, and that is one, we have to set bond in a way that will ensue the appearance of the defendant, and two we have to set a bond that will protect the safety of the community,” he said. “The overcrowding at the jail is not going to change the way we look at bonds.”

Weir said any pretrial release of inmates should be done with caution.

“These are individuals who have been arrested, and although they have not had their day in court yet, for every one of them there is probable cause they committed a crime,” he said.

During two-week period in Jefferson County in August 2018, more than half of people arrested on felony charges were already on some sort of supervision for previous felonies, he said, including pretrial, probation, work release and parole, among other types of supervision.

“So they’re out in the community committing more felonies,” he said.

Denise Maes, public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said the inmates released early from Jefferson County so far have been convicted of relatively minor crimes.

“Instead of letting these reforms take place, I think the sheriff is trying to scare the community by saying, ‘We have to let people out early,’ ” she said. “I’m not buying into the fear.”

Shrader rejected that critique.

“I’m not doing anything to make an attempt to get more resources,” he said. “I’m just trying to provide the services that I’m obligated to within the statute.”

Shrader expects by February his office could start turning away people sent to jail on most misdemeanors and low-level felonies, the next step after the early releases. If the jail population is still too high after that, the jail will have to start turning away new arrivals.

“It’s really unpalatable to not have a resource for police officers to take somebody to jail when they really need to be taken to jail,” Shrader said.

But, he said, bookings at the jail are trending down in 2020 when compared to previous years.

“This year, there is a bit of a downward trend already,” he said. “I think that that becomes a function of people recognizing that there are challenges and limitations in resources.”

In Golden, the jail’s overcrowding hasn’t had a major effect on day-to-day police operations, Deputy Chief Joe Harvey said. The city’s 50 police officers already use summons for many low level cases and routinely release suspects pending investigation, he said.

When officers perceive a threat to public safety, and when people are facing charges of violent crime or domestic violence, they’re still being booked into jail, Harvey said.

“I don’t see anything that would impact us short term getting our prisoners to jail on those more serious cases,” he said.

Golden police are beginning to consider restorative justice programs for both juveniles and adults that could divert defendants from jail.

“Societally, we need to look at what crimes we really need to put people in jail on, and which individuals are more properly placed into a system that decriminalizes it and gives them other alternatives than just sitting in jail for 15 days,” Harvey said.

Alvarez — the man released 18 days early from his DUI sentence — called his time in jail traumatizing. He said he watched TV and thought about how the dogs in commercials were living better lives.

His plans now that he’s free?

“To never drink again,” he said. “I definitely learned my lesson.”

Shelly Bradbury: 303-954-1785, or


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