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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

Every inmate in the Denver County Jail wants to get to 22. As director of jails John Simonet walks through the cell blocks, he's stopped several times by convicts begging to move.

"I gotta get down to the deuce-deuce," says one convict being held in a tank with fifty other inmates. There's a touch of desperation in his voice.

Pod 22 is the newest housing unit in the county facility at Smith Road and Havana. In the eight-year-old pod, every inmate gets his own seventy-square-foot cell with a porcelain toilet and a slit of a window to let in the sunlight. The pod's 198 cells are arranged around a central day room with card tables, and the inmates have easy access to covered outdoor basketball courts. There's even an acupuncture center.

It's easy to see why the prisoners want to get transferred into the new unit. In the rest of the jail, inmates are living cheek by jowl. In 1997 the estimated daily average inmate population was 2,213--that's 705 more people than the jail was designed to hold. In the "dorms" of Building 9, about 55 inmates are locked up inside one large cell. The cage is ringed by a catwalk manned by one sheriff's deputy. Toboggan-like "boats" on the floor are beds for newcomers.

Simonet continues on toward Building 21, the wing housing the jail's 214 female prisoners; when six burly guards rush by to break up a fight, he presses himself against the wall to make way. The female inmates are housed in four large dorms, as in the men's Building 9. As a pair of guards lead a sobbing woman with a split lip out of the wing, other inmates hang on to the cell bars, yelling at each other across the small guard station that divides the four dorms.

In other cell blocks, rows of dank, double-bunked cells face TVs mounted on the opposite wall. There aren't any light switches in these cells, just little silver knobs with which a prisoner can turn the cell from dark to dim. The place sounds like an aviary. Locked down for most of the day, the prisoners bounce their voices off the brick walls and back to other prisoners a few cells away. Simonet explains that these cell blocks were constructed back in the Fifties in the "linear" style. The biggest problem, aside from their age, he says, is that guards posted in the cage above the entrance to the cell block can't see what's going on in the cells at the end of the block.

"This place was state of the art in 1950," Simonet says above the din, "but it's a dinosaur now."

Simonet and virtually every other law-enforcement official in the city--from the district attorney to the judges to the sheriffs working at the jail--believe that a new, multi-million-dollar, 3,000-plus capacity jail is the answer to the overcrowding problem.

To get this message out in hopes of generating support for the new facility, the city organized a task force last spring to examine the overcrowding problem. One plan that would have put a new jail in an industrial area between I-25 and Sixth Avenue was headed for the November ballot. But according to Andrew Hudson, spokesman for Mayor Wellington Webb, the neighbors "pitched a fit." Since then, the task force has decided on a preliminary plan that calls for Denver to spend its $30 million budget surplus on what city finance director Andrew Wallach describes as a "down payment" on construction at a still-undetermined site (the rest of the cost would be financed year to year). Final numbers are still being crunched, but Wallach estimates that the new high-rise facility will end up costing about $85 million.

City officials on the task force came to the almost pre-ordained conclusion that a new jail would solve the overcrowding problem. But two Washington, D.C.-based criminal-justice consultants the city hired to study the issue determined otherwise.

"You could build a new jail with 3,300 beds and it'd be full when it opens," says one of the consultants, Mark Cunniff of the National Association of Criminal Justice Planners (NACJP). "And if you fill 3,300 beds, you've got three times the [jail] incarceration rate per capita of cities like L.A. and New York.

The consultants visited Denver three times, twice sent here by the National Institute of Corrections and the third time at the request of Denver city officials. The city paid the consultants $55,000 for their subsequent report, which was based on a four-month study and came to a conclusion that local authorities didn't want to hear.

"In order to solve the overcrowding problem, you've got to look at who's being locked up," Cunniff says. "Hey, if they looked at the entire jail population and it turned out that the majority of the people in there fit the predatory-criminal profile, then pour the cement and start building. But if you look at the people locked up in Denver, you'll see that they don't fit that profile."

The task-force study backs up Cunniff on that point. Of those arrested in Denver, only 7.1 percent are picked up for felony offenses, and criminals convicted of a felony offense make up only 15.5 percent of the jail population. Cunniff's report also points out that while Denver's population rate has stayed flat and its crime rate has decreased in recent years, arrests increased 5 percent annually between 1995 and 1997, especially in three categories: felony drug offenses, felony detainers (in which one jurisdiction holds a fugitive for another jurisdiction) and misdemeanor traffic violations.

"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."

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."

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?"

Cherner says he's also observed the cops' overzealous attitude.
"The cops see an arrest as a shock method," says Cherner. "They see it as keeping peace on the streets, but it's really more along the lines of, 'Fuck with me and you go to jail.'"

Simonet is reluctant to say that frivolous arrests by the police might be contributing to overcrowding at his jails. In the past, however, he has made efforts to hold back the tide of potential prisoners Denver cops were bringing in. At one point several years ago, he put a sheriff's sergeant at the booking station downtown to screen arrests.

"I wanted to review every arrest to make sure that it was serious enough to warrant being booked into jail for," says Simonet, "but the DPD division chief went to the director of safety and said that we couldn't legally do that. Even though it didn't work that time, I still think we could do it, and it could have a positive effect on overcrowding."

Simonet says he didn't intend for officers to stop arresting people just because he couldn't hold them. Handling what's sent to him is his job. And, he adds, "even if we did set up a screening station again, it'd only help us at the downtown jail. Last year we booked in about 60,000 people, and only 18,000 of them ended up coming out to county."

Speeding up the process downtown would be a good first step as far as Cherner is concerned. Comito says getting somebody booked and released on bond can take anywhere from four to fifteen hours, depending on the sheriff's work load. Comito blames a lot of this delay on the decentralized setup of the downtown facility, which relies on information coming in from several different agencies in order to properly identify suspects.

Cherner says the situation has become so bad at the downtown facility that he's started to take clients with arrest warrants to other counties to be booked.

"I've done it a couple of times if my client hasn't been apprehended and I'm aware of the fact that a warrant has been issued for their arrest," says Cherner. "I know other lawyers who have done it as well. You can walk into the downtown jail with your client and bond money, and it'll still take fifteen hours. I take them out to the suburbs and it takes two hours and the guys working at the jail are apologetic about it."

But some people can't even make bond anymore, according to public defender Reynolds, because of a new bond schedule that was set in June 1996.

"Bonds on minor cases are now being set at an extraordinarily high rate," says Reynolds. "For example, crimes in which a deadly weapon is involved now carry a $50,000 bond. Before, a Class 5 felony carried a $2,000 bond.

"I'm not saying violent offenders shouldn't be in jail, but under this bond schedule, you've got first-time offenders who get into little scraps or your basic bar brawls lumped in with serious criminals. You can't differentiate between a bar brawl and a serious assault the way it is now. So these people end up sitting in jail for one, two, sometimes three months before they go before a judge and have their cases dismissed or accept a plea bargain. These are putative bonds that are being set."

Reynolds says she complained about the higher bonds to the judge who oversees them. The judge told her the best way to present her case against the new bonds to other judges was to approach it from an overcrowding perspective. The bond schedule has yet to change.

In contrast to Denver's throwback county jail and its claustrophobic downtown pre-arraignment facility, the Arapahoe County jail is a spit-shined example of modern justice.

Captain Frank Henn, the Arapahoe County sheriff who runs the 752-bed county jail, calls his jail a "full-service justice center."

In Denver, prisoners are booked and then tossed into crowded off-the-street tanks until they're either released or transferred to another jail cell. In the Arapahoe jail, which was built in 1987, suspects sit, sometimes uncuffed, in plastic chairs while they're booked. The booking area looks and feels more like a hospital waiting room than a detention facility.

Arapahoe uses interactive TV for prisoners' court appearances, medical consultations and family visits, while Denver shuttles prisoners by bus to and from the county jail.

And as Henn leads a tour through the jail pods--all of which are set up just like the coveted 22 at the Denver County Jail--he points to the polished floors with obvious pride and runs a finger along ledges, looking for dust like a stuffy British maid. In every hallway, prisoners are scrubbing the walls and polishing the floor.

Even the public waiting room in the Arapahoe County jail is starkly different from its Denver counterpart. In Denver, the TV blares The Jerry Springer Show at a painfully high volume. At Arapahoe County, visitors watch an old Clark Gable film while waiting for people to be released.

Henn says on a slow day, a suspect can be processed and released in half an hour.

But the Arapahoe County jail only sees about 15,000 people a year, while the Denver jail processes about 60,000.

Still, Henn says, "you've really got to look at the age of Denver's facility and management style to understand why things move so slow over there. All of the jails around the metro area are overcrowded, but we're built to deal with it.

"Another thing that helps, which Denver is missing, is the fact that we're a full-service agency. Eighty percent of our road deputies are former detention deputies, and because of that, we've developed a rapport between the two groups. Our road deputies understand the problems inherent with a detention facility. As a result, we're not out there nitpicking. If a patrol officer brings somebody in here, we know they're justified. You don't bring a guy in to this facility because they were jaywalking and got smart with the officer writing them a ticket.

"It wasn't always like that. When I started working out here in 1983, we had some of the same friction that Denver has between the police officers on the street and the sheriffs working in the jail. Patrol officers would walk in to the jail and didn't look at the guy working at the jail as another law-enforcement officer. They looked at you like you were a jailer."

When considering a criminal-justice center like the one in Arapahoe County, Comito wistfully recalls his visit to a similar facility in Tampa, Florida. He talks about how inmates were processed while they were sitting in chairs instead of fifty-person tanks.

"People say that prisoners don't deserve nice facilities," says Comito, "but you've got to look how it affects the stress level for both inmates and officers. A great example of this, which I saw in Tampa, was that they had been open for a year when I visited and they'd had a total of five fights. I have five fights, at least, every week. That's the result of throwing somebody who's already agitated into a tank with forty or fifty other agitated people, all of whom have been waiting for hours to get out.

"You don't build jails like the ones we have here in Denver anymore. You build a facility where every aspect of detention--from booking to court--takes place on the campus. You use the technology we have today instead of building cells with three walls and a door.

"These old facilities we have now are disasters waiting to happen."
The consultants from the NACJP saw this when they studied Denver's overcrowding problem, but they still don't believe a new jail is going to solve all of Denver's problems.

"The jail want in Denver is very pronounced," says Cunniff, "but they want to start with the solution and work backwards from there. The city needs to look at its policies and how they're affecting the jails. But every time I started talking about that, I just got big, blank stares from them."

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