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

Sharlene Reynolds, head of the Denver public defenders' office, says that because of the drug court, authorities have gone haywire in pursuing drug users. "People are being thrown in jail for possession of minute amounts of drugs," says Reynolds. "The cops run these little sting operations, which we refer to as 'Prudential plans'--get a piece of the rock. They'll walk up to some user--not a buyer or a seller, mind you, simply a user who's hanging out on Colfax--and they'll ask them if they know where to score. The junkie agrees to set it up if they can get a piece of the rock or whatever they're buying. They end up getting busted and go to jail, where they sit and rot for a couple months."

Adds Reynolds: "I can only imagine what would happen if they got more jail space."

The movement to lock up drug users has resulted in overburdened jails across the nation. Like most cities, Denver is sticking by its decision to crack down despite the crammed consequences. But the NACJP consultants found other reasons for overcrowding in Denver's jail--reasons that had nothing to do with drugs.

The consultants were especially critical of Denver's handling of repeat traffic offenders, most notably those who get nabbed for DUIs.

"The irony is that in Denver you're not thrown in jail for a DUI," says Cunniff, "but you are for driving with a revoked license [DUR] or a suspended license [DUS]. Ritter said we couldn't be right when we came up with this as being a big problem that's taking up a lot of jail beds. Then he looked at the numbers and proceeded to point at the state's mandatory sentencing of sixty days for these kind of traffic offenses. Well, if that's the case, that it's the state's fault, then why not go to the state and tell them they're killing the city?"

Ritter isn't going to do that. If anything, he says, more habitual traffic offenders should be locked up. "Look, when we're talking about traffic violations, we're not talking about speeding or anything like that," says Ritter. "Were talking about hit and runs and multiple DUI offenders. If the seriousness of a DUI isn't impressed upon you after four of them, you should get some jail time. I think DURs and DUIs represent a clear public safety risk which needs consequences, and as a result, I wouldn't go to the state legislature and ask them to reduce or abolish jail time for them. There are people who should be in jail who aren't going as it is now."

Ritter dismisses the NACJP's report and the people who put it together. He says that consultants are just "experts far away from home."

Simonet is more blunt: "The study did us a terrible disservice. The people who prepared the report weren't practitioners, they were planners. They made several blunders."

The consultants aren't so high on Denver officials, either. They say local authorities refused to listen to any information that suggested solutions other than building a new facility.

But the idea that more people should be going to jail seems to be embraced by almost everyone in the Denver justice system.

Denver District Court Judge Brian Campbell says there's simply no way around locking up some people. Either they've flouted the law in the past or they need what Campbell refers to as a "mindset adjustment." Besides, as far as Campbell can tell, that's what society wants.

"Judges are very aware of the overcrowding problem," says Campbell, "but it's not our problem. My obligation to society is to put people in jail who society asks to be put in jail. Overcrowding has been going on for ten years. Still, there's a philosophy that when the time comes to go to jail, the time comes to go to jail.

"I had a guy in my courtroom the other day for a relatively minor transgression," Campbell says. "But I looked at his prior record and could tell that he was the type of guy that nothing would be quite as motivating as the sound of cold, hard steel slamming behind him. He needed to hear that sound. Thirty days in jail can turn your life around."

Campbell says he tries to balance "the sound of cold, hard steel" with space availability at the county hoosegow. One of his tools is the ability to split a sentence between jail time and home detention. He says in some cases he's also toyed with work release, in which an offender is confined overnight at the jail but is allowed to go to work during the day in lieu of total incarceration. He says it didn't work on a "mindset level."

"But you've got to think about how overcrowding also affects work-release programs, basically how it affects people's jobs," says Campbell. "The jail is so full that it can take a week to get somebody processed and ready for work release. And there are a lot of people who can't miss a week without getting fired. That's a question I'd pose to anybody. What do you do about a person who needs to go to jail to establish the proper mindset but who's going to lose their jobs because of it? What's that cost to society if their family has to go on welfare? It's a very frustrating situation."

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