When to hold ‘em
Short-staffed pretrial services under pressure, but county jail overcrowding because of variety of factors
Mesa County’s widely touted pretrial services program soon could be facing some serious issues.
The program is designed to help judges better decide who should be kept in jail before their court appearance, and who is acceptable to release on their own recognizance and can be trusted to return to court at their appointed time.
As a result, the folks who work in the program must interview and assess every single person who is facing possible jail time, and that can be daunting at times.
Regardless of whether Mesa County voters approve a proposed public safety tax increase in November, the county’s pretrial services will be adversely impacted, at least at first, sources who work to maintain that program say.
If voters approve a 0.37 percent hike in sales taxes to augment funding for the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices, it could mean more people will end up in the county’s already overcrowded jail, giving the short-staffed pretrial services office more work to do.
The tax would allow the sheriff and district attorney to hire more deputies. If voters reject the tax, Mesa County commissioners could be forced to look at additional budget cuts, which could lead to layoffs in county offices, including pretrial services, District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said.
“What you always see with proactive law enforcement work is you see an initial increase in arrests, and then the crime rate goes down,” Rubinstein said. “When that initial increase happens, it will be difficult on them. In the long term it won’t be, though, so hopefully the constant draw of funds away from every other department that the DA’s Office and Sheriff’s Office have had will allow the commissioners to prioritize with remaining dollars” if the tax proposal fails.
Since it was first created in 1989, the program has been seen as a model elsewhere in the state and nation as one to dramatically reduce the number of people needed to be housed in jail, and to increase the number of defendants who show up to court when they are required.
But because of a dramatic increase in crime in recent years, the Colorado Legislature created a special interim committee to examine why so many of the jails in the state’s 64 counties are experiencing overcrowding issues, and what can be done to help alleviate the problem.
Among other things, that panel — which also is examining ways to help counties deal with funding courthouses — is to look at possible changes in state laws on alternative sentencing, probation and parole policies.
While the committee has only met a few times, it’s already gotten an earful about the problem.
Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese told the panel at its first meeting in July that because of personnel changes in oversight and staffing since the program first began, including a new sheriff, district attorney and several new judges, the county’s program isn’t working as effectively as it once was.
“We have a new district judge who doesn’t believe in the program, and so more people are staying in jail than they were before,” Pugliese said. “The new sheriff is saying that everyone in jail has got a high propensity for violence and cannot be let out on the streets. The majority of our (jail) population is pretrial.”
She said the lack of a county work-release program has made matters worse, saying it was closed because local judges hadn’t been sentencing defendants to it.
While former Sheriff Stan Hilkey threatened to close that program, known as the Alternative Sentencing Unit, in 2013 because of county budget cuts to his department, it wasn’t until last year that current Sheriff Matt Lewis said the program wouldn’t take any more clients. He cited not a lack of judicial will to sentence inmates to it, but an increasing number of defendants who were deemed by pretrial services to be too dangerous to be let out of jail.
Dan Hotsenpiller, district attorney for the 7th Judicial District, which includes Delta and Montrose counties, told the panel in August that more options are crucial in avoiding overcrowding issues in jails.
“It’s not a panacea,” he said, referring to pretrial services programs. “You can look at Mesa County that has a very good pretrial services (program) and yet is facing now for the first time in a while some significant overcrowding challenges. We would love to have viable, effective pretrial services.”
Hotsenpiller said 20 percent of his court caseload is from pretrial clients who end up in jail for simple reasons, such as not showing up for court dates and ending up in jail as a result.
He said some of that could be dealt with if more courts would allow video appearances, particularly in judicial districts that have multiple counties such as his.
“What we’re hearing is judges are so reluctant to embrace video appearances by defendants,” Hotsenpiller said. “They work, they are fine and they would really help our jails.”
Rubinstein agreed that part of the problem is that judges don’t utilize enough bonding or alternative sentencing options, and the current slate of judges in Mesa County is all over the map when it comes to them.
He said when now retired Judge David Bottger was chief judge, he was very clear about not keeping people in jail any longer than necessary, such as not holding people who can’t afford to pay low bonds.
“I don’t think that all of the judges share that philosophy, and certainly (current Chief Judge Brian) Flynn has expressed a desire to have surety bonds, which doesn’t fit into that (pretrial) model,” Rubinstein said. “So I don’t think pretrial services has changed at all. I think the use of pretrial services has changed because of a different philosophy.”
Flynn said since he became chief judge earlier this year, he has been discussing bonding issues with the pretrial committee that oversees the program. That 13-member panel — made up of judges, prosecutors, public defenders and county workers — sets pretrial policies and bonding guidelines.
He said the panel also is discussing other solutions that may help with jail overcrowding, such as a duty judge to set bonds on weekends, something Rubinstein said would help greatly.
“As you know, jail overcrowding is a complicated issue that demands careful considerations of a number of important factors, including public safety,” Flynn told The Daily Sentinel in an email.
“What you may not know, however, is that according to our 2015 and 2016 data the pretrial jail population in Mesa County represents only about 10 percent of the jailable crimes, as the rest of the defendants are either released on summons, personal-recognizance bond or a secured bond,” he added. “The data also suggests that our jail population consists of people who may pose a ‘higher risk’ of failing to comply with bond, if they were to be released.”
The officials who run pretrial services are trying to make sure that, regardless of staffing issues, the program remains a priority.
“When we have tight budgets, limited staff, we have to prioritize,” said Dennis Berry, director of the Mesa County Criminal Justice Services Department, of which the pretrial program is just one piece. “On the community-based side of stuff — that’s where people live in the community and check in with us — pretrial is the No. 1 priority. That’s something that we’re going to make sure we get done because of the jail crowding.”
Steve Chinn, who supervises the program, makes sure he and his eight staff workers — each of them do a multitude of other things in the office — keep up with the interviews and assessments they are required to do.
Those interviews are the basis of the evaluations that judges use to help determine which defendants to keep in jail, and which are safe to release.
Chinn said interviews have increased by almost 30 percent over the same period last year, while supervision of defendants has increased about 16 percent.
“When we talk about the interviews going up, that means that many more people are being arrested,” Chinn said. “There’s just that much more going on.”
Berry said it’s not just the number of people, but the severity of their crimes that impacts their assessment risk.
As a result, 80 percent of the ones currently held in jail are in the higher risk category, the two men said.
“That’s been one of the biggest changes that we’ve seen since we started pretrial,” Berry said. “There have been fewer low-risk people sitting in jail waiting for court, and more high-risk people.”
Berry said the issue isn’t about people being forced to stay in jail because of an inability to post a bond, as some have speculated, but that doesn’t stop Chinn and his people from checking to make sure that’s not the case with some jail inmates.
In the meantime, the two men are waiting to see what the voters decide to do, and what direction the pretrial services committee wants to take as a result.