Jeffco DA cites ‘significant concerns’ about jail releases

Chief judge says situation should not impact court sentencing

Paul Albani-Burgio
palbaniburgio@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 2/18/20

On Feb. 12, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office announced it would be releasing 23 inmates early as the jail population was once again two percent above its capacity of 1,148 beds. Those releases …

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Jeffco DA cites ‘significant concerns’ about jail releases

Chief judge says situation should not impact court sentencing

Posted

On Feb. 12, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office announced it would be releasing 23 inmates early as the jail population was once again two percent above its capacity of 1,148 beds.

Those releases marked the third time inmates have had to be released from the jail since the start of the year, when the sheriff closed the seventh floor of the jail as a result of budget cuts.

Since then, Jeffco Sheriff Jeff Shrader has repeatedly told both the county commissioners and the media that residents can expect the releases to continue for the duration of 2020. Shrader has also warned that it is likely the county will soon have to begin limiting the number of people that are arrested and booked into the jail via “enhanced arrest standards.”

But while Shrader has been vocal about his frustration with the situation and the cuts he has been forced to make to his budget, Jeffco District Attorney Pete Weir said the continue released of inmates is also giving him “significant concerns” and presents “a significant public safety risk.”

“Individuals that are receiving jail time as a condition of probation or as a state sentence are doing so because their record merits it or the nature of the crime merits it,” Weir said. “Judges do not impose jail in a cavalier fashion so these are people we have significant concerns about.”

MORE: Jefferson County city police chiefs call for more jail funding

Weir said he was particularly troubled that over half of the 47 inmates released from the jail on Jan. 21 were serving time for drunk driving offenses, including some for sentences of a year or longer. Such sentences are only imposed, Weir said, for those who have a previous history of drunk driving and have already been sentenced to the alcohol treatment that is mandatory for first time offenders.

“That tells me some of these individuals that were released have a significant history of driving while intoxicated,” Weir said. “Now we are putting these people back out on our public streets and that’s extraordinarily concerning to me from a public safety risk standpoint.”

Weir also echoed Shrader’s concern that the releases take the teeth out of the system by preventing offenders from seeing the full consequences of their actions.

“The system is not perfect but it’s been developed over a number of years and I think the data certainly strongly suggests that if you want to change behavior there needs to be a combination of both sanctions and rewards,” Weir said. “If you take the sanction component out of the equation then you are much less likely to change their behavior and people, particularly these drunk driving offenders that have had repeated trouble following the law, are going to feel the consequences of their behavior are minimal.”

Shrader also noted that while there has been some conversation about alternate forms of sentencing, he feels those that are in jail generally should be in there because of the risk their presence in the community presents. To justify that claim, he points to a study his office conducted last year that found that over 50 percent of those who felony charges are filed against in Jeffco are already under some sort of supervision relating to a felony, including probation or parole.

“It’s all well and good to say we should have these people out in our community but when they are out in our community the vast majority of these folks continue to commit felony crimes against our citizens,” Weir said. “And in my view that’s absolutely unacceptable.”

Impact on DA’s office goes beyond jail

But while Weir’s concerns are top of mind, he said the jail situation is not changing his office’s approach to prosecuting cases.

“We approach the case to try to achieve what we feel is a just result and then the consequences of sentencing are just what they must be at that point,” Shrader said. “So we go in and advocate for what we believe is appropriate on behalf of protecting the community and then it’s up to the courts and jails to manage that.”

Weir also said his concerns about the budget cuts extend beyond the situation at the jail to concerns about a lack of funding for core public safety funding in Jeffco, including in the DA’s office. Weir said his office’s $23 million budget was slashed by about $1 million last year. Those cuts were mostly felt in personnel reductions, including the slashing of the elder abuse crime unit by half and the reducing of the special victims unit, which deals with crimes against vulnerable populations, by 40 percent.

“Something has got to be done because we are cutting into muscle as far as my operations are concerned,” Weir said. “Public safety in Jeffco historically has had a reputation throughout the state for being absolutely excellent and that status is jeopardized by lack of funding.”

The continued early releases are also being noticed by the county’s judges, said Chief Judge Jeffrey Pilkington. But while he said those judges are “aware of” and “sympathetic to” the challenges at the jail, Pilkington said those challenges are not leading the judges to change how they approach their work.

“If you are asking me if we do things differently as judges whether it be sentencing or setting bonds, I think the answer is that it’s business as usual,” he said.

Pilkington said that is because judges are guided by certain legal factors when determining both sentences and bond. However, the availability of jail facilities is not one of those factors to be considered.

“We still have to follow the law,” said Pilkington. “Does (the jail situation) have an impact on maybe more creative sentences? Maybe so. But we still have to follow what we think is the right sentence to impose and we try to do our best with what we have.”

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