Could Pandemic Jail Reforms Turn Permanent in Colorado?

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Photo by Neil Conway via Flickr.

A Colorado county has joined the list of U.S. jurisdictions weighing whether to make jail reforms implemented after COVID-19 a permanent feature of their justice system.

Fears that a reduction in the county jail population announced last spring by Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown would threaten public safety never materialized, reported the Sentinel , an online news outlet in Aurora, Co.    

“The sky is not falling,” said Denise Maes, a public policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “Crime is not rising as a result of jail depopulation.”

Under the revised policy, non-violent offenders were not detained in the local jail, leading to a drop in jail population from about 1,100 a day before the health crisis to about 600.

Maes and other defenders of the policy change pointed out that in Arapahoe, as is the case with most detention centers, 70 percent of inmates were those awaiting pretrial detention.

Arapahoe County isn’t alone in its effort to shrink jail and prison populations within the past couple of months following the onset of the pandemic.

Research shows that the coronavirus spreads quickly and easily in prisons, and with overcrowding already a major problem in detention centers, many jurisdictions are changing their policies to release more misdemeanor or non-violent offenders.

Keeping jail populations low goes beyond low arrest rates.

“We’re not saying, ‘OK murderer, here’s your probation,’ but I think we are listening more to one another and looking for ways to find alternatives to jail and prison, and for the most part, I think that’s a good thing,” said Matt Maillaro, an assistant district attorney in the Eighteenth Judicial District.

According to Maillaro, although arrests have gone down, there are still far too many cases being brought to trial.

In order to solve this, Maillaro said prosecutors have had to choose which cases were really worth a recommended jail sentence.

“We don’t need to argue over 15 or 30 days in jail,” he said. “We could argue in the past and go to trial, but today we don’t have that option.”

Other reformers said Arapahoe’s experience was an important lesson.

“Colorado has always been facing this justice crisis, but what we have seen with the pandemic is the criminal legal system being able to do what it has proclaimed it could not do for the last four decades,” said Juston Cooper, deputy director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

As more county and local jails across the nation go through temporary reform due to the virus, policymakers like those in Colorado could join in the fight to “shift the tide of a justice system that has been forced to reinvent itself more in the past six months than it has in decades,” said the Sentinel.

Read more: U.S. Prison Handling of COVID-19 Called a ‘Complete Disaster’

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