Filling up

Will Boulder’s latest crackdown on homeless push jail to release some inmates early?

Deputies can view several areas of the jail from the control room
Michael de Yoanna

Boulder Sheriff ’s Cmdr. Jeff Goetz passes through a locked door into the garage at the county jail. This is where the inmates are unloaded from vehicles and frisked. Through one more steel door, and another, the inmates are processed and those who are unable to bail out are handed red jumpsuits and orange sneakers with Velcro straps.

“The first 72 hours are critical,” Goetz explains. “If there’s going to be an incident, that’s generally when it will happen.”

By incident, Goetz means something like a suicide attempt, and, after an arrest, that’s a possibility because for most people going to jail means their entire world is crashing down around them. They may be losing a job. They may have children. They may be facing a long sentence.

They wear red, Goetz adds, so that the deputies at the jail know who is new to keep a closer eye on them.

In the coming weeks, more red jumpsuits may appear behind the jail’s concrete walls, electric doors and reinforced windows because of a law changed last month by the Boulder City Council. Municipal Court judges were given more leeway to put offenders, including homeless people, in jail for minor offenses, like panhandling from a median, which can be construed by police as interfering with motorists.

City officials say they have no plans to make sweeping arrests, but are focused on a small group of repeat offenders that cause problems on city property, including around the Municipal Building and library, where homeless people often congregate. 

Because the new ordinance has just gone into effect, it is too early to tell if more people will end up doing time. But the jail is watching closely. Goetz says it has teetered near capacity several times in recent months.

“This time last year, we were well over 500 a day,” Goetz says. “That’s a huge population spike.”

So daunting, he adds, “that we were really panicking.”

Five-hundred inmates is roughly critical mass for the jail. Though the maximum capacity is 540 inmates, the jail faces many problems well before hitting that point. The jail strives to separate certain kinds of inmates, like those with known mental health issues and violent, repeat offenders.

But once the jail population exceeds 500, it becomes harder for jailers to separate different classes of inmates.

And the jail is already approaching capacity for one group — women, who are separated from the men. The “magic number” for female capacity at the jail is 68-69, according to Goetz and earlier this week, when Boulder Weekly toured the jail, there were 66 female inmates. Once the jail exceeds capacity for the women, they are taken elsewhere, to places like the Washington County Justice Center, a 250-bed jail in Akron, on the lonely plains, about 120 miles east of Boulder.

Meanwhile, the jail’s total population has been inching up — 430 in January; 469 in February; 487 in March. So far this month, the daily population has hovered around 490.

Under such strain, should a law-enforcement agency in the county need to make mass arrests if an event goes wayward, the jail would be hard pressed to handle it, Goetz admits.

The looming situation could also mean early release for inmates, something that hasn’t happened for four, maybe five, years, the Sheriff ’s Office estimates. Should crowding reach a tipping point, the jail would send a list of possible releases — mostly those nearing the end of their sentences — to 20th Judicial District Chief Judge Maria Berkenkotter and District Attorney Stan Garnett to be considered for early release.

It’s not clear whether the city of Boulder’s new law will prompt that situation. City of Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum insists it won’t. The new law is not meant to put more people in jail, the mayor says.

“That’s not the goal,” Appelbaum says. 

Rather, the City Council wanted to return to Municipal Court judges the discretion the council had taken away from them in 2012, Appelbaum says. Back then, the city imposed sentencing limitations on the courts in part to reduce the number of homeless people in jail. A council agenda packet presented by City Attorney Tom Carr highlighted the problem the city was facing in 2012: “In the past five years, the Boulder Municipal Court has experienced a significant increase in the number of criminal actions brought each year. The City Attorney’s Office prosecutes these violations. Between 2007 and 2011, the Municipal Court has seen a 46 percent increase in filings. Most of the crimes charged have a potential sentence of a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail. The crimes proposed for penalty reduction are more regulatory in nature and do not present a risk to public safety.”

But in the reversal last month, Carr joined City Manager Jane S. Brautigam and fomer Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner in convincing the mayor and council that the court needs its discretion restored in order to “impose more effective sentences” for handling certain kinds of offenders — the “small minority of the defendant population who do not comply with court orders,” such as completing programs ordered by the court or even appearing in the first place.

“Without the threat of incarceration, some defendants will simply walk away,” staff advice in the March 18 City Council agenda reads. “This also can create a frustrating situation for police officers. There have been instances where a person cited has torn up the citation in front of the police officer.”

Before the council voted in favor of the reversal, Bill Benjamin the vicechair of the Boulder County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, tried to convince the council to do otherwise.

Benjamin praised the council’s vote in 2012 as “thoughtful and well-considered.” He noted that Carr had written in a public memo at the time that stated that “in previous discussions with council, council members expressed surprise and disappointment” that offenders could face jail and fines — “such a severe penalty” — for minor offenses.

But now, with the turnaround, Carr and others argue that incarceration will not rise: “Staff does not believe that these changes will result in a significant increase in incarceration — that would require a sea change in the Municipal Court’s approach to sentencing. The hope is that the threat of incarceration will induce individuals to change their behavior.”

The operative word is “hope” and, to Goetz, the potential for longer sentences for some inmates can cause strains on a jail that has crowding worries. So the jail’s approach is very much “wait-and-see,” he says.

“Our job here isn’t just to warehouse people,” he adds.