JAILHOUSE BLUES: Voters stomp proposed property tax to build new Arapahoe County jail

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 | People arrested in Arapahoe County will continue to be booked into the 33-year-old jail on South Potomac Street for the foreseeable future, voters decided Tuesday. 

By more than a 2-to-1 margin, Arapahoe County voters rejected a proposed property tax increase that would have funded the construction of a new jail beside the Denver Broncos training facility in Centennial, according to data tabulated by the Arapahoe County Clerk’s Office.

More than 67 percent of voters had voted against the measure as of Wednesday morning, according to the local clerk’s office.

The Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners unanimously decided to pursue the ballot question, which sought to increase property taxes by an average of $5.66 a month to pay for a roughly $464 million jail over the course of 30 years, in late August. A panel of approximately two dozen citizens had studied the state of the current jail and listened to proposals for how to deal with the site for more than a year. 

Opponents of the measure had advocated for enhanced criminal justice reform at the state legislature instead of the construction of a new 1,612-bed detention facility. 

“The defeat of 1A sends a clear message to county officials that they believe Arapahoe County needs more than just a new jail,” Juston Cooper, director of the opposition campaign and deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said in a statement. “Any future jail construction proposals should be part of a more comprehensive plan that places just as much emphasis on keeping people out of jail as it does on keeping people in jail. We welcome the opportunity to work alongside county leaders and other stakeholders, including 1A supporters and opponents, to develop real, long-term solutions for Arapahoe County.”

Cooper’s group raised nearly $45,000 in in-kind donations during the campaign season, according to records filed with the Secretary of State’s Office. Proponents had netted more than $100,000 in cash donations, mostly from construction and engineering firms, by Election Day. 

Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown lamented the loss, saying the jail’s strained infrastructure will remain insufficient for the roughly 1,100 people who are detained there in 68-square-foot cells at any given time. 

“The voters made their voices heard during this election process, but that still doesn’t negate the need that we have at the current facility,” Brown said. “It still doesn’t fix our plumbing, it doesn’t fix our electrical. It’s not a modern facility that can better serve the inmate population here in Arapahoe County … we’ll be back because we still need a modern facility and because we still need a safe facility.”

Assaults by inmates against other inmates and staff members have swelled in recent years, according to Arapahoe County data.

Like Brown, the county commissioners also hinted at further efforts to rectify the current jail.

“While we are disappointed in the outcome of this ballot measure, the Board of County Commissioners respects the will of Arapahoe County’s voters,” members of the five-member board said in a joint statement. “Without a solution to address our aging infrastructure, Arapahoe County will need to consider all options – in partnership with the sheriff’s office and stakeholders – to best meet the public safety needs of our community within the constraints of our budget.”

This summer, Brown said future efforts could include issuing certificates of participation, which are often viewed as a means of circumventing stipulations outlined in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or pursuing another ballot measure.

In the meantime, Cooper said state legislators are working to reduce inmate populations across Colorado. In Arapahoe County, more than 70 percent of the jail’s population is merely awaiting time in front of a judge and has not been convicted of any crime, according to officials with the sheriff’s office.

“While it was well-intended, it would have been a big step in the wrong direction,” Cooper said in a statement. “State lawmakers are working to reduce Colorado’s over-reliance on the criminal justice system, and there is strong public support for promoting prevention and treatment as alternatives to incarceration.”

Gov. Jared Polis and Attorney General Phil Weiser, both of whom are Democrats, each asked for state lawmakers to sign off on several million dollars for potential criminal justice reforms in the proposed state budget released last week. 

State lawmakers will be tasked with approving the proposed budget during the upcoming 2020 legislative session.