AURORA | Aurora lawmakers asked the administrator of the city’s municipal court to come up with recommendations for filling numerous vacancies that have forced a partial closure of the jail during a budget workshop Saturday.
Aurora’s court administrator, Candace Atkinson, said 10 detention officer positions were vacant as of Saturday. As a result, Atkinson said only the first floor of the city’s jail is operational, influencing the municipal judge’s decisions about whether or not to lock up defendants there.
“Right now, we’re in an agreement until we get fully staffed or more staffed that he only does it on egregious cases or ones that have been mandated,” she said.
“We’re not fully open. We’re just open on the first floor, but we need to open the second floor, which would take those 10 additional officers or more to rotate through there so we can go back to what we call fully operational.”
The jail primarily serves as a temporary detention facility, though it can also house people sentenced to as much as three days’ incarceration, including those sentenced under the city’s new mandatory minimum law for shoplifting.
She described the cells on the first floor of the facility as “more confined” than the second floor but told Councilmember Juan Marcano that the jail is not concerned about liability resulting from this because “we’re not violating any of their rights.”
Council members said they were told earlier in the month that there were only four vacancies but later learned the true figure was greater, including some positions that have been open for more than a year.
Atkinson said she did not include vacancies that the city is in the process of filling in the original figure provided to council. She said her administration is regularly interviewing candidates for detention center jobs and blamed the city’s Human Resources Department for slowly moving candidates through the hiring process, mentioning that it took about five months to hire the detention center’s chief after he submitted an application.
“It’s not that we don’t get applications. It’s not that we don’t find qualified people. It’s just that lag time where we lose them,” Atkinson said.
The director of that department, Ryan Lantz, told the council that he wasn’t aware of delays specifically impacting courthouse hiring but that human resources tries to complete background checks of candidates in three to four weeks.
While Councilmember Alison Coombs asked if the jail had considered contracting out some detention officer jobs, Atkinson said she would rather stick with individuals whose training was overseen by the city and that turnover is high among contract employees.
Marcano described the vacancies as “really troubling” and suggested that the council’s Public Safety, Courts and Civil Service Policy Committee investigate the topic. Councilmember Dustin Zvonek, who serves as vice chair of the committee, asked Atkinson to bring recommendations for filling or eliminating vacant positions to the committee.
Atkinson said the court administration was also over budget for overtime and that she was worried eliminating vacant positions rather than filling them could contribute to burnout.
The council also debated using $153,000 in vacancy savings from the court administration to continue a voucher program for municipal court defendants struggling to cover the cost of the classes associated with their probation.
The conservative majority rejected the proposal as well as a suggestion to fund the vouchers using discretionary funds controlled by the council. Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky was incredulous that the city would fund the cost of classes on behalf of individuals who had been convicted or pleaded guilty to crimes.
“A common theme of these budget meetings in the two years that I’ve been on this council is we always want to talk about the criminals and how we’re going to help the criminals, what we’re going to give to the criminals,” she said. “Meanwhile, victims in this city I don’t think get anything except code enforcement up our ass to clean the graffiti off of our buildings from the crimes being committed against us.”
Municipal Presiding Judge Shawn Day said the city previously directed the providers of probation services to offer payment plans or reduced fees to defendants who were found to be indigent.
While Day said that would be enough to comply with a state law requiring the city to follow the same sentencing structure as the state for domestic violence cases, chief public defender Elizabeth Cadiz said the state also offers vouchers and that most instances of people violating the terms of their probation were the result of poverty.
Marcano told Jurinsky that he saw the program as a way of ensuring defendants were rehabilitated after committing crimes.
“We should be making sure that these folks are able to live their best life after the fact and be rehabilitated so they don’t reoffend,” Marcano said.
Councilmember Curtis Gardner also questioned why council members who supported cutting vacant positions in the city’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion were reluctant to use vacancy savings from the court administration to cover the cost of vouchers.
He also criticized the idea of jailing people on probation solely because they are unable to pay for a class.
“If they can’t afford that, are we going to open a debtor’s prison?,” Gardner asked. “It sounds like half of our council would appreciate that. That’s not a joke.”
Gardner joined progressives in supporting the proposals to fund the voucher program, but the funding request did not have enough votes to continue through the budgeting process.