Several sheriffs from around the state took issue Thursday with state Department of Corrections policy involving early release of prison inmates.
Their comments surfaced at a County Sheriffs of Colorado panel discussion at the Limelight Hotel in Aspen. The biannual sheriff’s association event ends today with appearances by Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.
One of the moderators asked a six-sheriff panel what single question each would ask Hickenlooper if given an opportunity. Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo steered the discussion away from the panel to sheriffs sitting in the audience, and they made their concerns known about the impact of early releases and prison closures.
“I would ask him to stop emptying the (prisons) in the state of Colorado,” Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor said. “Because those people are ending up in our jails. They’ve shut down three prisons. ... They are letting people out early who are reoffending.”
Last year, the Department of Corrections began a new philosophy of moving inmates who are held in administrative segregation, also known as solitary confinement, into general prison populations. Hundreds of mentally ill inmates in administrative segregation have been transferred to residential-treatment programs or have been granted early release. The state’s prison system reportedly is shedding population quickly, a factor in recent facility closures.
“One of the things the (Department of Corrections) was advocating was the fact they have saved the state $55 million,” Taylor said. “Well, that’s fantastic. But I can tell you each one of us can go through our counties and find the majority of our budgetary issues are on the increase in inmates in our jails. And those inmates, we can demonstrate, have come from the early releases from the prison system in the state. It’s a huge issue that nobody’s talking about, least of all the governor’s office.
“The counties are paying the toll. I think it’s wrong, and it’s irresponsible of state government to do that,” Taylor said.
Sheriff Jim Faull, of Prowers County, said a lack of mental-health services and providers for people with drug and alcohol problems is an issue in his rural county as well as statewide.
“A lot of those people (getting out of prisons) have mental-health issues, they have drug issues, and they come back to our communities and reoffend. We don’t have the facilities and resources to deal with those mental-health and drug issues,” Faull said.
He suggested that Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork Valley might be the exceptions with their progressive programs addressing mental-health and drug treatment. But many areas of Colorado don’t have the public and private financial resources to support such programs, and the state is not looking to supply the funding, Faull said.
Inmates with mental-health problems and substance-abuse addictions are being released from prisons without job training or social skills, compounding the problem, he said.
Five years ago, Faull’s jail averaged 25 to 30 people, he said.
“Now it’s 45 or 50, and most of them are paroled offenders,” Faull said. “The governor is emptying out the prisons, and it’s coming back on us. It costs me $55 a day to hold those people, and that’s on the cheap side.”
Taylor said another factor is that state lawmakers have been changing sentencing guidelines. In one recent instance, a judge sentenced an offender to a nine-year sentence in a county jail.
“It’s unheard of,” Taylor said. “That should have been a (Department of Corrections) sentence.”
During a panel discussion half an hour earlier, Sheriff Justin Smith, of Larimer County, said there is a push within his community not to put people in jail and to offer creative sentences in lieu of incarceration.
“It’s no longer, ‘How are you getting tough on crime,’ but a switch that we’ve seen is respecting the rights of our citizens and standing up for their constitutional rights,” Smith said. “Things like due process are things you hear discussed among sheriffs that I don’t believe had been before.”