Denver traps growing population expanding from understaffed sheriff’s department

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Denver security officials welcomed changes that halved the prison population and pledged to continue efforts to minimize the number of people incarcerated at the city’s two prisons. town.

“If I had the ability to shrink the jail so quickly…my question is, why did we put them in jail in the first place?” Murphy Robinson, then director of public safety, told city council members during a meeting on July 29, 2020. “It’s a question I continue to ask and I continue to challenge our sheriff as well as the other members of the criminal justice system to really focus on this issue. I would really like to try to keep our prison population down.

Two years later, the number of people incarcerated in Denver prisons is back to pre-pandemic levels. The increase in the prison population is putting increased pressure on a department where almost a third of all assistant positions are vacant. Understaffing and high inmate counts mean more overtime costs and fewer programs for inmates.

With 263 of 875 deputy positions vacant, the sheriff’s department must constantly move inmates between housing units and facilities to consolidate inmates into as few housing units as possible so fewer deputies are needed, a said Maj. Kelly Bruning, who oversees the downtown Denver detention center.

Destiny Sandoval, right, an inmate at the Denver Jail, sits on the bed where she sleeps at the Denver Downtown Jail on Oct. 13, 2022. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

“It’s a constant juggling act — where we can put people, where we can house them,” said Denver Sheriff Maj. Scott Happ, who oversees the county jail.

The department is consistently at or slightly below minimum staffing levels, despite requiring all staff to work 24-hour overtime each month, Happ said. Sometimes a single deputy is tasked with supervising a housing unit with dozens of low-risk inmates. If the minimum staff is not met, deputies lock down the accommodation units and keep the inmates in their cells for longer periods.

“We’re always trying to find ways to give them more time because ultimately the happier the inmate the less trouble they cause,” Happ said.

The sheriff’s department worked with the ACLU of Colorado and the Colorado Freedom Fund to reduce the prison population in 2020. Seeing the prison population rise again despite the work is disappointing, said Taylor Pendergrass, director of advocacy and strategic alliances for the ACLU of Colorado. .

“It’s a huge missed opportunity for Denver to have made these changes permanent,” he said.

Inmate Aaron Cisneros raises his feet as he watches television with other inmates at Denver City Jail on October 13, 2022 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Inmate Aaron Cisneros raises his feet as he watches television with other inmates at Denver City Jail on October 13, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Premature thought?

Staff from all of Denver’s public safety agencies made changes to help reduce the prison population in the spring and summer of 2020, said Armando Saldate, director of the Department of Public Safety.

They reviewed prisoner lists and worked to release the elderly, those who had served most of their sentence and those who had committed low-level, non-violent crimes, he said. In March 2020, the Denver Police Department decided to issue summonses instead of making arrests for low-level, non-violent property and drug crimes. Judges have started issuing more personal bonds, which allow people to get out of jail without paying any money.

The combined average daily prison population of the Downtown Detention Center and the County Jail decreased from 1,799 on March 15, 2020 to a low of 950 on July 2, 2020. Since then, the prison population has increased.

“Thinking it was sustainable was a bit premature,” Saldate said. “I never thought we could stay below 1000. I thought we could hopefully stay around 1500, 1600 and 1700.”

The prison population on Thursday was 1,804, matching daily averages recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The increase in the prison population is due to more arrests, including a large portion of those arrested on warrants from other jurisdictions, Saldate said. The Denver Police Department has ended its pandemic policy of issuing summonses instead of making arrests for low-level crimes and prison admissions have increased, in part due to an increase in certain crimes , said Saldate.

Denver Sheriff's Deputy Jumpe makes his...
A Denver Sheriff’s Deputy makes his rounds to check on inmates at the Denver Jail on Oct. 13, 2022. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

There’s nothing stopping Denver public safety officials from continuing to use the tools they used to reduce the prison population in 2020, Pendergrass said. Reducing the prison population would reduce the pressure on overworked MPs.

“All of these issues are just as urgent now as they were in the midst of the pandemic,” he said.

Denver isn’t the only jurisdiction to jail more people since 2020.

The statewide prison population fell by more than a third between Jan. 1, 2020 and Jan. 1, 2021, from 11,698 to 7,196. But jails have since filled up. The statewide prison population was 12,136 as of July 1, according to the most recent data available from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.

About 73% of people held in Colorado County jails as of July 1 had not been sentenced and were being held pending trial, the data showed.

About 90% of the 1,801 people detained Thursday in Denver jails were awaiting trial. The remaining 10% were serving sentences. According to data from the Denver Sheriff’s Department, the most common charges that people have been incarcerated for are warrants from other jurisdictions, assault, trespassing and disturbing the peace.

Denver Sheriff's Deputy Jumpe makes her rounds to check on inmates at the Denver City Jail on October 13, 2022 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Denver Sheriff’s Department Deputy Jumpe makes his rounds to check on inmates at the Denver City Jail on Oct. 13, 2022. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Next steps

The Denver Sheriff’s Department spends hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to recruit and retain people to run the jails.

Deputies will receive a 4% raise in 2023 and a retention bonus of up to $7,000, said Maj. Janelle Orozco, who leads recruiting efforts at the department. New recruits are eligible for up to $3,000 in signing bonuses. The department also increased overtime pay from a regular hourly rate of one and a half assistants to double.

The Denver Department of Public Safety is creating a center that will serve as an alternative to jail for those suspected of petty crimes, such as possession of drug paraphernalia and trespassing, Saldate said. He hopes the center will prevent people from going to jail and instead connect them to health services, he said. He also hopes to revitalize the city’s Crime Prevention and Control Commission, which is charged with reducing jail use and reducing recidivism.

“We are now approaching this prison population – it is not surprising,” he said. “Do I think we’ve solved the crime problem by going back to that level?” No. I think we still have to be very smart and intentional about who is in our jail and make sure those 1,800 are really the offenders who pose a threat to our public safety and our community or who are serving time.