AURORA VOTE 2019: Arapahoe County Question 1A – Raise taxes to build a new jail?

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Inmates and officials at the Arapahoe County Detention Center wait on a door to open giving them access to a hallway of the facility, Sept. 19, 2019.County officials are hoping that the voters will support a measure allowing for the construction of a new facility.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Arapahoe County officials this Election Day are asking residents to raise their property taxes an average of about $68 a year to fund the construction of a new jail in Centennial.

Deemed ballot question 1A, the measure seeks to raise county property taxes an average of $5.66 month, scrap the current jail beside the Denver Broncos training facility and erect a new one next door. 

Expected to be financed over the course of three decades, the new facility would boast a maximum capacity of 1,612 inmates and cost approximately $464 million, according to county calculations.

SENTINEL COVER STORY — HARD CELL: Persuading voters to raise taxes for a new Arapahoe County jail won’t be easy

The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the local county jail, for years has lamented poor conditions at the facility on South Potomac Street. Built in 1986 to house 386 inmates, the jail now houses anywhere between 1,100 and 1,200 people on any given day, according to county statistics. Nearly all of the inmates are housed in one of the facility’s six pods — two more were tacked on to the original four units in the early 2000s — and triple bunked in 68-square-foot cells.

A cadre of criminal justice reform organizations, including ACLU of Colorado, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the Colorado Freedom Fund have all come out against the proposal, saying wider policy changes would more effectively serve the county’s incarcerated population.

“The context or narrative of overcrowding is so antiquated and formulaic because it’s just simply not true,” said Justin Cooper, deputy director with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “There are measures and reforms that could be put in place that could eliminate the overcrowding issue.”

Proponents have contended that the slew of new services that would be incorporated into the new jail would buoy safety and reduce recidivism. 

Though still merely sketches, early plans for a new jail include more open living accommodations to curb flared tempers of inmates kept inside approximately 23 hours a day, nearly double the number of spaces for attorneys and case workers to meet with clients, and 10 additional classrooms to host programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. A new building would also add space for group therapy for more than 1,100 inmates a month — compared to some 768 people who receive those services now — a bevy of religious services, and re-entry services for nearly the entire jail population. Currently, about 224 inmates a month receive re-entry resources, such as avenues to housing, employment and mental health. Nooks in a new building would allow re-entry staffers to meet with an estimated 1,446 inmates a month.

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

A new building could also expedite an expansion of the building’s medication-assisted treatment programs, which currently allow people who are getting treatment for opioid addiction prior to getting arrested to continue their medications, including methadone and naltrexone, when incarcerated. The jail plans to soon make the program available on a voluntary basis to addicted inmates who want to begin opioid addiction treatment while incarcerated. 

“We’re not asking for silk curtains or anything, but we are asking for plumbing that works, and it needs to be safe for deputies and the people that work there,” Democratic County Commissioner Nancy Jackson said earlier this summer.

A new jail would also help the sheriff’s office comply with state laws, officials have said.

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

Vince Line, bureau chief with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, said the jail is currently not honoring a state statute that requires authorities to detain convicted criminals separately from inmates who have only been suspected of crimes and are awaiting trial. 

“Obviously it’s an important issue to try to keep those who have been convicted of a crime from those who have been charged and accused but not convicted,” Line told community members earlier this summer. “We cannot do that in our facility. We just simply don’t have the space.”

An exemption clause in the law prevents the jail from technically violating state statute, Line said. 

About 70 percent of the jail’s current inmates are pre-trial detainees, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime, according to Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown. 

Only Aurora voters living in Arapahoe County will be able to vote on the measure, which generally includes all residents south of East Colfax Avenue. A small pocket south of County Line Road that falls in Douglas County is also precluded from the vote.

Proponents of the measure created an issue committee commemorating their support earlier this summer.

The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, a Denver-based nonprofit organization, formed an issue committee to oppose the measure on Sept. 18, according to campaign finance filings.

Neither committee has filed a campaign finance report. The first such report isn’t due until Oct. 15.

ONLINE:

Yes On 1A: Vote for a safer Arapahoe County

Vote NO on 1A: Arapahoe County can do better