Jailbait

Denver's entire law-enforcement community seems to think we need a bigger house. But a few holdouts say that first we need wiser law enforcement

"The truth is that instances where someone breaks into your house, terrorizes your family at gunpoint and pistol-whips the dog are far and few between," says Denver District Court Judge William Meyer.

Still, Denver jails aren't hanging any vacancy signs. And the legislature is continually passing laws designed to send more people to jail. Simonet points to a recent child-abuse case in which a father locked his daughter in an outhouse; the father's short sentence caused a public outcry resulting in mandatory sentences for child abuse.

"What's happening is that we're paying the consequences of the laws we've passed," says Simonet, who's been the jail director since 1981.

"But you still get people saying that we should spend the $100 million it would cost for a new jail on education instead. Well, it's not our job to deal with social issues. Social problems need to be handled by the churches and communities. What we do is lock people up according to the laws passed by society. This stance isn't popular with the public, but the public also likes criminals to be hammered by the justice system. Now it's come time to pay for it."

Simonet and the sheriffs working in Denver's two jails (the county jail and the downtown pre-arraignment detention facility) find themselves at the end of the justice line. All the policies laid down by the legislature and the district attorney's office result in thousands of prisoners shuffling around decrepit facilities in drab prison garb.

One way Simonet keeps a lid on this pressure cooker is by walking the cell blocks to see how everyone is coping. Inmates, volunteers and sheriffs all seem to have something to complain about.

One inmate locked down in a dismal single cell wants to go back into the general population. He tells Simonet that he got moved because he's HIV-positive and had open sores. Simonet reaches through the bars and shakes the man's hand, saying he'll take care of it.

Another inmate wants Simonet to talk to his parole officer, who's busting his chops. Simonet borrows a stubby pencil from the man and jots down the information on a scrap of paper.

Simonet wades into one of the crowded dorms and talks to a big Hispanic guy who wants a Spanish channel added to the TV schedule.

"Simonet has performed a minor miracle by keeping on top of the overcrowding problem," says Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter.

And if Simonet doesn't like dealing with the fallout from other agencies' policies, he doesn't show it. He talks about the justice system as if it works like the checks and balances of the federal government. Every agency must address its own tasks without worrying about what the others are doing. "A big part of our job is resolving headaches," he says. "And if we don't like it, we should find another line of work."

Perhaps Simonet's biggest headache these days is the increase of arrests coming as a result of Denver's drug court ("Justice or Bust," February 23, 1994). According to Ritter, the drug court has increased the number of people being processed into the jail system on drug charges by two and a half times since its inception in 1993.

"Maybe there are more arrests now," Simonet says, "but two years ago, if you got arrested on a drug case, you'd spend a year in here. Now you're out of here within a month if you comply with what the drug court requires. If not for the drug court, we'd have around 3,000 inmates instead of 2,500. I'll admit that we get a lot of them back after we see them the first time, but it's better than spending a year here right off the bat."

Norm Early, Denver's DA before Ritter, wanted his deputies to punish anyone caught using drugs with a felony conviction. Ritter, however, took a different approach, giving Judge William Meyer the green light to implement the drug court. Now, after being arrested and booked and spending a night in jail, first-time drug offenders possessing small amounts of drugs are given deferred sentences. In exchange for the break, the defendants are sent to drug treatment programs immediately after sentencing. They're monitored by random urinalysis, frequent court appearances and treatment updates. The court is constantly on their case.

And Ritter says that the threat of possible jail time for backsliders is essential to making the program work.

"The judges use jail sanctions to encourage compliance," says Ritter. "And the jail time increases with each offense, so you can't make this work if you don't have the jail cells to put them in. The justice system must use the leverage of punitive jail time to get people into treatment. Before drug court, you had people getting thrown in prison without people trying to help them beforehand."

But Ritter also acknowledges that when the drug court was first conceived, no one anticipated just how big the increase in incarcerations was going to be.

"Drug court has turned out to be a real double whammy that's feeding the jail," says Cunniff. "The cops figured that since there was drug court, they'd make more arrests. And we're talking low-level guys who are getting arrested. So while the drug court was supposed to be a diversion to jail, it's really an extra funnel into jail. It's well-intentioned, but what was supposed to be a silver bullet has turned out to be a poison pill."

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