Opponents of Arapahoe County tax hike for a new jail push for cheaper reform

Juston Cooper leads a rally against Prop 1A, which seeks to raise property taxes in Arapahoe County to fund a new jail. PHOTO SUPPLIED

AURORA | Opponents of an effort to increase property taxes and build a new jail in Arapahoe County in the coming years marked their displeasure with the proposal Wednesday at a campaign kickoff event in Aurora.

Justin Cooper, deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, is spearheading the opposition campaign, which has been formally deemed “the coalition for smarter public safety spending.” 

Joined by a bevy of other liberal groups, including the ACLU of Colorado, the Colorado People’s Alliance and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, Cooper has condemned the proposal for a new Arapahoe County jail and instead called for increased funding for alternative justice system reform. 

“Supporters of (ballot measure) 1A claim it is needed to prevent jail overcrowding and improve public safety, but there are more effective and less expensive ways to accomplish these goals,” Cooper said in a statement. “It may be well-intentioned, but it is the wrong approach — Arapahoe (County) can do better.”

Cooper formally formed an issue committee with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office Sept. 18, according to campaign finance filings. 

For years, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office has fulminated against the Centennial jail’s aging infrastructure, cramped layout and lack of inmate resources. Originally built to house 386 inmates in 1986, the facility currently houses about 1,100 people. A pair of new pods added in the early 2000s allow the building to house 1486 inmates, though federal mandates require the jail to leave 20 percent of the capacity unfilled at any given time.

Earlier this year, the Arapahoe County board of commissioners unanimously agreed to ask voters to raise property taxes by about 3.4 mills, or $5.66 a month on a $380,000 home. The money would fund a new $464 million jail beside the Denver Broncos training facility. The new building would be able to house up to 1,612 people and boast more space for programming intended to reduce recidivism and boost re-entry resources.

County officials commemorated their support of the measure with a press conference of their own held in front of the current jail last month. 

Sean Walsh, campaign director for the committee in support of the measure, inveighed against the opposition campaign’s calls to route money away from a new jail. 

“By opposing funding to create safer, more humane conditions for county inmates and staff, the ACLU is cynically exploiting a serious public safety issue to advance a national agenda,” Walsh said in a statement. “The Arapahoe County jail is unsafe, overcrowded and expensive to maintain. Creating more humane conditions for those who are incarcerated – not to mention increased mental health and substance abuse counseling to help people from returning to jail – is a public safety issue for everyone who lives in Arapahoe County.”

At the press conference Wednesday, Cooper unveiled the results of a poll of more than 700 residents conducted by a traditionally liberal North Carolina research firm. The poll found wide opposition to the idea of building a new jail, with about 70 percent of respondents saying the county should “focus on reducing the jail population” instead of building a new facility. 

“Before spending nearly half a billion dollars on a bigger jail it doesn’t need, Arapahoe County should try adopting some of the best practices that have been successfully employed by other counties to safely reduce their jail populations,” Cooper said in a statement.

In a survey of approximately 400 local voters conducted on behalf of the county earlier this year, less than half of the respondents said they would support a new property tax to finance a new jail, according to a county poll conducted by Ciruli and Associates. In the same poll, 58 percent of respondents said they don’t know enough to rate the condition of the jail. A fifth of those surveyed said the jail had average conditions.

Drop boxes for mail ballots cast in the county open Oct. 14, and early in-person voting begins Oct. 28.