Budget challenges forced the closure of a floor of the Jeffco jail last winter. Now, COVID-19 is about to reopen it. On Nov. 10, the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners directed county staff to …
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Budget challenges forced the closure of a floor of the Jeffco jail last winter. Now, COVID-19 is about to reopen it.
On Nov. 10, the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners directed county staff to provide Jeffco Sheriff Jim Shrader with the $3.75 million he says is necessary to reopen the fifth floor of the jail for the next year.
Shrader had told the commissioners that reopening the fifth floor, which has been closed since March, would allow him to increase the jail’s current 760-bed capacity by 216 beds.
He had originally asked for twice that amount, which he said would allow him to keep the floor open until the pandemic’s likely end.
Commissioner Lesley Dahlkemper said she supported funding the floor for one year rather than two because the county is facing other demands for CARES Act funding and trying to balance them all.
Pandemic led to space issues
Space has been an issue in the jail since the start of this year, when cuts enacted to the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office budget as part of county budget cuts led Shrader to close the seventh floor of the jail because he no longer had the budget to staff it. That closure reduced the capacity of the jail from 1,392 beds to 1,148.
The capacity of the jail then had to be reduced even more when COVID-19 arrived in the jail in March. Shrader reduced the population to less than 600 inmates in accordance with CDC and public health department guidance.
To do so, the Sheriff’s Office implemented early release protocols, worked with the District Attorney’s office to adjust bonds and review sentences and implemented new arrest standards that limited jail bookings to certain felonies and crimes involving the Victim’s Rights Act.
“I have worked my entire career to put criminals behind bars so it was very difficult to have to make decisions regarding which criminals to put behind bars,” Shrader wrote in a letter to the Jeffco community on Nov. 6.
The jail has also dealt with its own COVID-19 outbreak during the pandemic that began when cases were first identified at the jail in March and was officially deemed by an outbreak in late May. That outbreak was deemed over by Aug. 27. By that point, 58 inmates and 12 staff had been confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19.
In March, the Sheriff’s Office closed the fifth floor so that it could reopen the seventh floor to use it to house inmates who were showing symptoms of COVID-19. The seventh floor can currently hold up to 192 inmates while the remaining floors, including the fifth, can each hold 216.
In his letter, Shrader stated that the Sheriff’s Office had noticed an increase in certain types of crime that do not typically meet the current arrest standards, particularly motor vehicle trespasses and motor vehicle theft. In response, Shrader met with Jeffco’s police chiefs to discuss the enhanced arrest standards and how to ensure that criminal activity is still being “appropriately deterred and disrupted while jail capacity remains limited.”
On Sept. 2, Shrader expanded the jail capacity to 760 beds and amended the arrest standards to include class 4 felonies, the fourth most serious felony.
He said reopening the seventh floor would allow him to further relax standards but that such changes would not come overnight.
“Just because there is a `yes’ today doesn’t mean the problem is solved today,” said Shrader. “There is obviously a lag in recruiting, hiring and training to make sure that we can get to this point, but this will give us the latitude to move forward in a positive direction.”
New COVID-19 cases in jail
The move to fund the reopening of the seventh floor comes as the jail is experiencing new pressure from COVID-19. As of Nov. 6, “one inmate and five detention employees were currently positive, with several additional employees showing symptoms and awaiting test results.”
“Despite our best efforts to prevent the spread of COVID in the detention facility, the number of current positive cases could mean the jail will revert to outbreak status again, only two months after our first outbreak was officially resolved at the end of August,” Shrader wrote in his letter.
Commissioner Casey Tighe also expressed support for providing funds to reopen the seventh floor but said the Sheriff’s Office must redouble efforts to determine who really needs to be in jail.
“I support this effort but I also want to really push hard to make sure we evaluate our system and make sure that we are making good decisions on who is incarcerated and who isn’t,” said Tighe.
Shrader said he agreed with Tighe, and would work with the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee to continue those evaluations.
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