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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

While judges like Campbell find themselves stuck between society's demand for punishment and the knowledge that the stockade is full, jail officials are trying some diversions of their own.

Steve Comito, a division chief at the sheriff's department and supervisor of the downtown jail, says the sheriff's office has also looked for ways to get more low-risk people out of its packed facilities. Comito says a weekend work program has taken some of the burden off the jail system; it involves cases such as the ones Campbell refers to, in which a jail sentence could end up doing more social damage than reform.

"What we decided to do was sentence them to weekends in jail so they wouldn't lose their jobs and their families wouldn't suffer as a result," says Comito. "But then we'd have forty or fifty guys knocking on our door Saturday morning. And because we only have them for two days, we couldn't put them to work on any useful chores for us. Basically, they'd sit there taking up bed space and watching sports on TV."

To remedy the situation, the sheriff's department started having the weekenders doing supervised community-service projects outside the jail. Comito says the program, which began in 1987, has diverted thousands of people who otherwise would have been lying around taking up space.

But efforts like these have been stopgap at best. The jails are still full, and some in the law-enforcement industry agree with the NACJP's conclusion that before the citizens of Denver spend millions of dollars on a new jail, local law-enforcement agencies, namely the Denver Police Department, need to take a look at policy changes that might help alleviate some of the strain on the jails.

Phil Cherner, a local criminal defense attorney, says one way the cops could help would be to start using summonses instead of hauling every suspect down to the jail.

"Say a cop busts somebody in the heat of the moment as they're committing a crime," says Cherner. "The guy gets arrested and sits in jail while the cops assemble evidence during the three working days they're allowed to hold him. Then the DA has the choice to file a charge, let the guy loose or hold the guy while they do more work. That's a scenario where putting a guy directly in jail is appropriate.

"Now what about a drug case where the cops get a call after the crime? If they issue a summons, the investigator assigned to the case by the DA can put together an evidence package, but they don't have to waste jail resources holding the guy. This is how the suburbs operate, and it works well with someone's presumption of innocence. Denver does it backwards in a lot of cases. They lock somebody up, then work the case out. Denver cops don't even understand what a summons is--they don't even have the forms, as far as I can tell."

Cherner points to the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedures to demonstrate that even state law encourages the use of summonses except in the most serious felonies.

"The use of summonses will result in fewer people in jail," Cherner says, "and if you screen the cases first, then you've got fewer cases to deal with. As a result, you don't need a bigger jail."

The DA, police and sheriffs don't agree.
"If you arrest a suspect and they have to post a bond to get out, they're more likely to return for their court date," says Ritter. "And the significant number of failure-to-appear warrants that are out right now suggests that if we tried to use summonses, we'd have an even bigger problem than we do now, because those people would most likely end up in jail anyway.

"The use of summonses isn't the panacea that lawyers like Phil might believe," says Ritter. "You can predict people's behavior, and we've formed an idea that people wouldn't react well to summonses."

Comito estimates that as of a couple of years ago, Denver had almost 40,000 outstanding failure-to-appear warrants. But he recalls his off-duty nights moonlighting as a security guard at King Soopers to explain another, more diplomatic, reason why summonses aren't used. He says that if he didn't arrest shoplifters at the scene of the crime, not only did it allow them the opportunity to duck out of their court dates, it also left a bad impression on store owners who would feel as if crimes against their property weren't being treated seriously.

John Simonet says that this is a "quality of life" issue.
"Say you've got some guy urinating in the new Pavilions mall," he says, "and the Nike World owner complains. It doesn't appear to be a serious crime, but the police officer must exercise his discretion and arrest the guy peeing, because that person's actions are affecting the quality of life downtown."

But the NACJP's Cunniff says the issue goes much deeper. "Denver cops are in a world of their own," he says. "They're obsessed with having the respect of the people on the street. They're arresting people who are in and out of jail in 24 hours. If people come and go within 24 hours, why did they get brought in in the first place? Where's the public safety issue there?"

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