EDITORIAL: We can’t wait for sentencing reform, Prop 1A will end Arapahoe County jail peril and cruelty now — Yes on 1A

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Time moves quickly. Colorado’s governments do not.

As you read this, prisoners and detainees held at the Arapahoe County jail are being held in dangerous and arguably inhumane conditions. The deputies who work there are also endangered by a facility far beyond its viable capacity.

The problem is critical, and voters are being asked to rectify it by building a larger facility that focuses on widespread inmate substance abuse, mental illness and rehabilitation.

There’s no question that voters should approve Ballot Question 1A.

The proposal calls for raising taxes about $6 a month for a home valued at about $400,000. Total cost to build a new jail and improve a wide range of programs focusing on inmate addiction, employment and mental health, would be about $464 million, paid over decades.

Despite the jail’s critical defects, and a long list of other serious problems at the jail, opposition to Prop 1A isn’t focused on the modest property tax increase attached to the jail request.

Critics of the measure say that the county should instead be focusing on reforming sentencing and jail-bond laws to keep people out of expensive detention facilities.  They point out that it’s better to not have to build a new, expensive jail at all.

“We think counties and local municipalities should work on de-carcerating,” said Denise Maes, public policy director at ACLU of Colorado. “… Because the majority of people in jail are pre-trial detainees which means they are innocent and we need to find a way to get them out of jail instead of building more beds.”

We agree. But Maes and others are wrong to think that such reforms would come quickly or easily, or even at all. And in the interim, tens of thousands of local residents are being mishandled and mistreated at this clearly undersized and dangerous facility.

A recent story by Sentinel Colorado reporter Quincy Snowdon pointed out that the majority of people detained in the jail aren’t convicts. Instead, they’re waiting to be adjudicated. It means that while hundreds of inmates are serving sentences at the jail, far more are somewhere in the process of having their cases move through the court system and have yet to be convicted of anything.

As is often the case, poorer criminal suspects await their final day in court while living in jail because they don’t have the money nor clout to bond out.

But that’s hardly the only reason suspects remain in jail until sentencing or exoneration. Hundreds of these jail inmates are suspected of committing serious and sometimes deadly crimes. Arguments for their incarceration to protect public safety are solid.

Even more compelling is the fact that the vast majority of those booked in the jail suffer from some degree of substance abuse, addiction or a wide range of psychological problems.

The argument that addiction and mental illness are integral to the majority of the crimes inmates are accused or convicted of is compelling.

For years, both Republican and Democratic sheriffs and commissioners have clamored for resources to address these inmate issues.

This the community’s chance to do just that.

A large part of the new jail design focuses on drug-abuse and addiction treatment as well as job training and education.

There’s no doubt that it would be preferable to offer these critical programs outside of jail, but it’s naive to think that if the community just builds them, they will come.

They won’t. The very nature of addiction and mental illness keeps many people from seeking out successful treatment. It’s regrettable but true, they often end up in jail after being accused of a crime. It doesn’t mean that the majority of substance abusers or those with mental illness are criminals, but there’s no doubt the majority of people accused of crimes suffer from mental illness and substance abuse. 

The Aurora region and the state need to address the problem of mental illness, substance abuse and crime in a comprehensive way. Jail and prison sentencing reform is only one part of that organic problem.

We agree, demand that state and local lawmakers find better ways to keep people from going to jail in the first place. Find better ways to actually rehabilitate people convicted of crimes instead of simply warehousing them at a huge public expense, creating a population of people doomed to poverty, addiction and more crime.

But don’t ignore the fact that there are tens of thousands of mostly poor and troubled members of the community who right now must dangerously suffer inside the current Arapahoe County jail. Don’t ignore the fact that the people who work there are also endangered while trying to protect the inmates and the public.

Build a better jail that more effectively handles the real-world problems of those incarcerated there, and at the same time, press ahead with needed jail and prison reforms so we can see changes within years rather than decades.