In face of early opposition, Arapahoe County officials commemorate bid to fund new jail with tax increase

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AURORA | Standing beside several supporters and a smattering of opponents, Arapahoe County officials on Thursday publicly launched their bid to fund a new $464 million county jail.

Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown, Board of County Commissioners Chairman Jeff Baker and a bevy of former county officials called for voters to pass a ballot measure that asks for a property tax increase to underwrite a new jail.

“I want to reduce the population inside of our jail through alternative sentencing and programs that are proven to reduce recidivism,” Brown told reporters. “Referred measure 1A helps achieve this goal.”

Unanimously approved by the board of commissioners late last month, the ballot question asks to increase the Arapahoe County property tax mill levy by about 3.4 mills, or about $5.66 per month on an average-priced home in the county. The average price tag for an Arapahoe County pad is currently $380,000, according to county calculations.

A portion of the proposed tax would sunset in 2052, dropping to 2.3 mills.

The new tax revenues would go toward constructing a new $464 million detention facility beside the Denver Broncos training facility in Centennial. 

Officials with the local sheriff’s office, which oversees the current jail, have bemoaned the 33-year-old facility’s aging infrastructure and physical constraints. 

The jail currently houses approximately 1,100 inmates at any given time, with many detainees triple-bunked, according to Vince Line, bureau chief with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.

The majority of those inmates are pre-trial detainees, meaning they have not been formally convicted of any crime. Of the 1,137 inmates in the facility on a Tuesday morning in late August, 837 were pre-trial detainees, Brown said last month.

Officials with organizations like the ACLU of Colorado have lamented the proportion of pre-trial inmates at Colorado detention facilities, saying that bond reforms and other programmatic changes could more efficiently address crowded cells.

“We just think that there are too many people in our jails right now,” said Denise Maes, public policy director at ACLU of Colorado. “ … We need to find a way to get them out of jail instead of building more beds.”

Representatives from the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the Colorado Freedom Fund also attended the gathering Tuesday to publicly oppose the ballot measure. 

Justin Cooper, deputy director with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, rebuked the county’s claim that a new jail with more beds would promote public safety. 

“The context or narrative of overcrowding is so antiquated and formulaic because it’s just simply not true,” he said. “There are measures and reforms that could be put in place that could eliminate the overcrowding issue.”

The new jail would be able to house 1,612 people, according to Brown. The current maximum capacity of the facility is 1,458 inmates.

You know Occam’s razor — the simplest explanation, and in some ways the simplest solution — if you have too many people and half are innocent, let them go home,” said Elisabeth Epps, a self-described abolitionist who works to bail people out of jail with the Colorado Freedom Fund.

Epps was sentenced to several weeks of work release at the Arapahoe County Detention Center earlier this year after she was convicted of interfering with Aurora police in 2015.

When describing her time in the facility earlier this winter, Epps chided county officials’ characterizations of the jail as a facility replete with leaking pipes and overflowing sewage. 

“Of course it’s terrible, but it’s not the worst jail I’ve seen,” Epps said. “ … I’m not saying the jail is nice, because it’s not. It’s a cage. But it’s really, really deceptive to show one terrible hallway and act like that’s what it’s all like.”

Officials have pointed to mold, leaking gas lines and rampant plumbing issues as reasons to revamp the facility, which was originally built to accommodate 386 inmates.

More than facility upgrades, officials have said the jail’s layout makes separating sensitive populations, such as gang rivals and mentally unstable inmates, nearly impossible. 

“It is not a safe or humane place the way it is structured right now,” said Brian Arnold, program director with the city’s Ready to Work program and member of a county planning committee. “I’m not for increasing prison populations, and in fact I’m not even for building new prisons. But this isn’t a prison. This is a detention center and it is mandated by our government that every county has one.”

Board Commissioner Baker said a new jail could also help shield the county from hefty payouts following lawsuits filed by inmates. 

Earlier this week, the county commission agreed to pay a $2.45 million settlement to the family of an inmate who was found dead in an Arapahoe County jail cell in 2014, The Denver Post reported.

Maes with the ACLU of Colorado said none of the groups in opposition to the measure have formally formed an issue committee memorializing their dissent with the Secretary of State’s Office. 

Proponents of the measure formally created their own issue committee, Safer Arapahoe County, in July. 

The committee has yet to file any campaign finance disclosures. The first such filing is due early next month.