System delays place manacles on jail

The large summer crowd gathering at the Mesa County jail this month is neither celebratory nor safe.

The jail, constructed just over two decades ago and designed to hold 392 inmates, has repeatedly housed more than 400 this June and reached a peak of 432 on June 19.

That meant inmates were double- and triple-bunked in cells that were not designed for so many prisoners, and other inmates were sleeping on mattresses in hallways. Such a situation is dangerous for both those incarcerated and for jail staff members. And it is a lawsuit waiting to be filed, should any sort of violence erupt.

All this appears to be due to a combination of factors: lack of available space in the state prison system for inmates already convicted of felonies, slow processing of people awaiting trial in Mesa County for both felony and misdemeanor charges, fewer of those accused of crimes being able to make bail before their trials and limited space available in Mesa County Community Corrections.

But those delays and related systemic problems are effectively handcuffing the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department, limiting its ability to operate the jail in a safe and efficient manner.

The situation is particularly disconcertinq because the jail population had been on a downward trend the past half dozen years, thanks to new Community Corrections programs to treat drug offenders and a joint effort by law enforcement, the Mesa County District Attorney’s office, the judiciary and parole officials to ensure only those who truly need to be behind bars remain there for long.

No one wants to see dangerous criminals released on the streets — whether they are awaiting trial or awaiting transportation to the state prison system.

However, few people in Mesa County want to see county government go through the costly undertaking of expanding its jail once again.

And, when 42 of the 419 people in the jail Tuesday morning were inmates awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges, it’s worth asking why so many of these people — who face less serious charges and have not yet been convicted — remained behind bars. Clearing the jail of even half of their number would have gotten the population down to close to its limit.

This explosion of the jail population may be only temporary, and the numbers may well drop to the averages of earlier this year, when about 338 people were incarcerated each day.

Still, that number represents a significant increase over the past few years. It’s time for officials throughout the judicial system to re-examine their policies and determine what’s causing the increases. Housing inmates on mattresses on crowded hallway floors is like lighting the fuse to a stick of dynamite.


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