Doug Linkhart leads charge against $25 million jail expansion

At 2 p.m. today, Denver City Council members will be voting on a 384-bed expansion of the Smith Road jail, a bond-fueled construction contract worth about $25 million.

But expect at least one strongly dissenting vote from Councilman Doug Linkhart.

Over the past few months, Linkhart has bee beating a steady drum opposing the expansion. The former state lawmaker contends that the city's economy -- and the economics of crime control -- have changed dramatically since the project was first greenlighted five years ago.

The jail expansion was part of a bond package voters approved in 2005; it also included the funds to build the new downtown jail and courthouse. Efforts to relieve dangerous overcrowding in city jail facilities had been stymied for years before the measure finally slipped through, back in the salad days of Mayor John Hickenlooper's first term.

But during the years since, Denver's jail population has actually declined -- from an average daily population of 2,485 inmates in early 2006 to 2,077 inmates in the first quarter of 2010. The Smith Road expansion, when combined with the newly opened Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center downtown, would give the city a capacity of 2,750 jail beds. That's approximately a third more than are currently needed.

Like all turnkeys with a surplus of empty cells, the Denver Sheriff's Department doesn't see a problem here. Officials argue that they can always lease out the extra space to the feds (ICE or the Bureau of Prisons), the state prison system, whatever. And Mayor Hickenlooper is pushing the plan. But Linkhart believes the expansion is an ill-timed expense the city doesn't need, and that the money could be better spent in re-entry programs that would help reduce jail capacity further by getting chronically homeless and mentally ill offenders out of the system.

Do other council members buy into Linkhart's argument -- enough, anyway, to buck Hizzoner? We'll find out soon. For more of the councilman's dissent on the issue, see his rallying message below:

"Some disappointing news to those who have been involved in the debate about whether to build more jail space at Smith Road: the Mayor has decided to move forward with the new facility despite a lack of need for the space and a lack of a solid plan for how to use the space. The contract for the new building will be presented to City Council's Health & Safety Committee Tuesday morning.

Denver's jail currently has 433 more beds than the average daily count of inmates for 2010 YTD. With the new building we will have 689 more beds than we need. With this additional building, we will have 33% extra capacity in a system that already houses too many people who are simply homeless, mentally ill or substance abusers.

The new jail building will cost the city over $5 million/year to operate at a time when our budget is already $100 million/year short. The notion of renting the beds to the federal or state governments has not been backed by any commitments or proof of feasibility.

Some of us had begun meeting with the Mayor's office and Sheriff's Department to see if there might be ways to use the new building for reentry programs by finding other savings at the Smith Road facility to fund these programs. The Mayor's office now says that any such savings would go toward our budget shortfall.

I am hopeful that my Council colleagues will join me in voting against this contract. I will be asking for a public hearing if the contract reaches the full Council, which would probably be in late August. In the meantime, please feel free to contact any of us about your position."