Sheriff Hilkey: Work release program on Mesa County chopping block
An alternative to jail, Mesa County’s work release program, may be eliminated under anticipated budget cuts to be unveiled on Monday by Mesa County commissioners.
The sheriff’s Alternative Sentencing Unit, housed at Sixth and Pitkin avenues and operating at a cost of approximately $1.1 million annually, has been earmarked for possible elimination should cuts to the sheriff’s budget projected around $325,000 materialize in Mesa County’s 2014 budget, Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey said.
Tentative county budget priorities are expected to be presented at the county commission’s regular 9 a.m. meeting on Monday.
The budget cuts were not set in stone, and Hilkey said as of Thursday it was unclear how many of the Alternative Sentencing Unit staff members could be reassigned within the Mesa County Jail, or let go. Thirteen jobs are at issue, he said.
Impacts of such a move would be far-reaching for the agency and criminal justice overall in Mesa County, officials said.
Among them, the expansion of capacity in the Mesa County Jail, which is overcrowded from time to time.
“We’re going to have to open up a new pod in our jail,” Hilkey said.
While what that would look like is still being hashed out, the sheriff said they could essentially convert space designed as a gymnasium into a makeshift “dormatory-style pod.” Mesa County’s detention facility, designed in 1992 with a capacity of 392 beds, regularly reached critical overcrowding over several weeks in June, hitting an all-time record of 432 inmates, raising safety concerns for staff and inmates, some of them double- or triple-bunked.
Mesa County Chief Judge David Bottger said swollen jail numbers are a short-term impact.
The move strikes a blow to Mesa County’s three-year-old Evidence-Based Decision Making initiative, an effort aimed at reducing recidivism. Mesa County is among seven jurisdictions nationally participating in the project.
“Unfortunately, there are a number of mandatory sentencing laws which require judges to impose some form of jail,” Bottger said. “If work release isn’t available, those people will have to go to jail. The only thing good about it, from a criminogenic risk perspective, is that it’s harder to get illegal drugs and alcohol in jail. Otherwise, folks in jail tend to associate with other folks in jail, at least some of whom have anti-social attitudes and engage in anti-social thinking. Folks in jail can’t work, are separated from their families and spend all of their free time with other folks in jail. Research tells us that this will make it more likely these people will commit crimes in the future.”
Inmates pay room and board, among other expenses, in Mesa County’s work release program. They’re afforded a chance to keep employment while serving court-ordered sentences in a less restrictive environment. The sheriff’s Alternative Sentencing Unit includes a “work-ender” program, which allows approved inmate crews to perform various labor projects in the community. The sheriff’s graffiti removal program is operated under the same structure.
Hilkey’s agency is the largest general fund piece of Mesa County’s budget and has been slashed to the tune of $4 million over four years, down 27 positions in that time.
“When our two commissioners (John Justman and Rose Pugliese) ran they made a lot of public declarations that there wouldn’t be hits to public safety,” Hilkey said. “I think those of us who are doing our best are very interested to see what that support looks like.”