EDITORIAL: The region’s free, get-out-of-jail card — courtesy of the coronavirus

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The pandemic crisis has killed more than 200,000 Americans and sickened millions more, crippled the nation and wreaked havoc on the economy.

Surprisingly, it’s also shown we really can solve the nation’s prison reform problem.

Because of the nature of the coronavirus pandemic, keeping thousands of prisoners locked up together in county jails quickly looked to become death sentences earlier this year. As the reality of the pandemic in March made clear the danger of housing people in jails, jail and justice officials were forced to make hard decisions.

Local governments have for generations made the case for locking up people accused — but not convicted — of crimes, or convicted of crimes that are actually medical problems with substance abuse and addiction. The argument was that suspects will almost always become criminals by avoiding adjudication of their cases.

The past few months have made clear that’s not true.

Since the 1980s, state legislators and others have been unsuccessful in reversing a “tough on crime” trend that only served to be tough on state and local taxpayers and hundreds of thousands of people whose “crime” was poverty, the lack of education and drug and alcohol addiction. For decades, Colorado has ruined lives and wasted billions by not modernizing incarceration guidelines for state jails and prisons.

Until this year.

To protect jail inmates and employees alike, Arapahoe County has reduced the jail population by more than half, according to Sheriff Tyler Brown, as reported recently in Sentinel Colorado by Quincy Snowdon.

Before then, the vast number of inmates were accused criminals, not convicted ones. About 70% of the inmates were risking their lives by being exposed to COVID-19 because they couldn’t afford to post bail. Most of these cases actually go on to have their cases dismissed or settled in court to sentences that preclude jail or prison time.

It’s a vast waste of taxpayer dollars and hugely unjust by making clear that people of means are more equal than the poor under Colorado’s system of justice.

By Brown releasing non-dangerous inmates awaiting their days in court, he saved lives and made clear the Legislature and others must institutionalize these tectonic changes next year.

Last year, voters turned down a request to raise local taxes to expand the jail, then bursting at the seams with people who, provably, don’t need to be there.

“We think counties and local municipalities should work on de-carcerating,” Denise Maes, public policy director at ACLU of Colorado, said then. “… 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.”

Granted, some of the money would have gone for badly needed substance abuse treatment.

But the picture here is clear: Rather than incarcerate patients suffering from mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, we should be spending that money on providing effective treatment for people who are ill, not criminal. It doesn’t mean that the community should ignore or disregard those who break the law. It means that locking everyone up who’s poor or mentally ill does no good to the accused, nor the community.

Brown’s work and observations at the jail have proved that.

Now it’s time for state lawmakers to act on that. In January, when lawmakers reconvene for the 2021 General Assembly, the Legislature should push through reforms that will allow the endless thousands of detainees to appear in court on their own volition, just like wealthy suspects are allowed to do. And one thing the pandemic has taught us is that we can accommodate the real lives of people who can’t miss work by allowing them to comply with court law remotely.

The state will have to invest in expanding treatment facilities and programs, funded from savings in jail costs. That truly will be an investment, especially in light of the growing addiction crises here and across the nation.

As secondary reform, state lawmakers need to review mandatory sentencing guidelines. Coupled with training judges and allowing them flexibility in sentencing, convicts with drug and psychological problems can be referred for treatment, rather than being conditioned for recidivism.

Clearly, the safety of the community will not been jeopardized by institutionalizing and expanding these reasoned changes. We can reduce expensive and dangerous jail and prison populations, save taxpayer money and treat everyone equally just by continuing what the pandemic has forced us to begin.