- Bruce Elliott
- El Paso Countys Criminal Justice Center is nearly at capacity. Just-released statistics show that in the last year, one of every 138 U.S. residents was in jail, a rate higher than anywhere else in the world.
In response to a potential overcrowded jail crisis, Sheriff Terry Maketa is exploring a plan to release detainees accused of nonviolent crimes immediately after they are booked, photographed and fingerprinted.
Maketa's proposal comes a little more than two years after El Paso County commissioners approved a controversial plan to use $71.4 million in taxpayer money to finance a jail expansion. Now, within two years or even sooner, the county is headed right back to where it started -- with a jail so packed that it presents potential danger for inmates and deputies alike.
Maketa expressed frustration about the situation in an interview last week when the number of prisoners at the newly expanded Criminal Justice Center hit 1,340, about 260 inmates shy of the jail's capacity.
"I don't know what the answers are," Maketa said. "But putting more people in jail isn't necessarily solving our problems."
The sheriff is considering a sign-and-release plan that would enable first-time, nonviolent offenders to obtain a type of sheriff-sponsored, no-pay bail bond rather than being detained in jail as they await their court dates. They would have to sign an agreement to return to court, Maketa said.
Some people don't like the idea, he said. But as the jails have filled up, Maketa is increasingly wary of simply "warehousing" prisoners.
The overcrowding quagmire has haunted the county for years. Just three years ago, Maketa's predecessor, former Sheriff John Anderson, dealt with overcrowding in part by introducing coffinlike "sleds," which were placed on jail floors and used as makeshift beds for detainees. Ultimately, Anderson resorted to releasing dozens of convicted inmates before their sentences were completed.
The latest predicament has been brewing since November, when Maketa, citing numerous safety concerns, announced that downtown's dilapidated and unsafe Metro Detention Center, which was brimming past capacity with 350 inmates, would be closed.
Those inmates were moved to the county's second jail facility at the Criminal Justice Center at 2739 E. Las Vegas St. Several weeks ago, workers completed an expansion of the facility, adding 864 beds and upping the county's jail capacity to 1,599 beds.
But a recent and sudden rise in inmates, partly inexplicable, partly the result of a backlog of 200 inmates headed for state prisons, has Maketa talking to other officials in the county's criminal-justice system about possible reform.
Maketa noted that he could lobby voters to pay for another jail. But voters overwhelmingly rejected such a proposal two years ago.
That's why he's now looking to the spirit of the law -- the presumption that people are innocent and must be proven guilty. Everything from increasing alternative sentencing, such as electronic monitoring, to shortening months-long delays in the courts is open for debate, he said.
"These are just ideas," Maketa said.
Doing hard time
Maketa isn't alone in searching for solutions, says George Epp, director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado. Across the state, as beds are filled, jailers are looking for answers.
Epp blamed two decades of get-tough sentencing that leaves many people who commit relatively minor offenses, like using drugs, drinking under the influence or verbal spousal abuse, doing hard time. Add to that a 13-fold increase since the early 1990s of mentally ill inmates behind bars and then sent to state prisons.
"There's a bucket load of them," Epp said. "It's not just here, it's happing everywhere."
National critics blamed similar drivers earlier this week after the Justice Department released the latest inmate tally. As of the middle of 2004, 2.1 million U.S. residents were incarcerated, a rise in a single year of more than 48,450 inmates.
Statistically, that means that, in the last year, one of every 138 U.S. residents was in jail, the highest rate in the world.
Epp noted that resources meant to keep people out of jails have shrunk in recent years. In Colorado, substance abuse funding has declined along with money that helps the mentally ill afford homes, medicine and treatment, he said.
Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, blamed the mentality that criminals must be harshly punished for their crimes.
"Right now, if you build it, they will fill it," Donner said. "It's just the reality of the situation. It's why you don't see big jails that are empty."
Lawmakers have rarely reversed harsh laws, she added.
-- Michael de Yoanna