Gov. Jared Polis on March 25 issued an executive order to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in facilities and prisons. In response, local jurisdictions have taken quick, responsible steps to address the risk posed to those in custody.
The petitions filed by the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the Office of Alternate Defense Counsel asked the Colorado Supreme Court to go far beyond that and mandate specific, one-size-fits-all actions across our diverse 64-county state.
Our locally elected sheriffs are already taking necessary actions to lower their incarcerated populations to protect jail staff and the inmates for whom they are responsible. Police agencies are using summonses rather than arrests whenever public safety allows. Chief judges have issued orders for their jurisdictions to favor personal recognizance bonds whenever possible to keep people out of custody. District Attorney staff continue to work with judges and defense attorneys to establish local procedures and to resolve as many cases as possible with plea agreements.
The current approach allows local officials to adopt changes as circumstances dictate. These experienced professionals are in the best positions to make smart decisions that balance public health and public safety.
And their efforts are working.
In the 18th Judicial District, average daily population at the Arapahoe County jail is down to 750 inmates from the 1,100 the facility housed prior to COVID-19 efforts. The population at the jails in Douglas, Elbert, and Lincoln counties are down 25 percent since the beginning of the month.
“Those housed in county jails are not hotel guests or patrons of a cruise at sea. They are incarcerated because they have either committed a crime worthy of taking away their liberty, or they are accused of a serious crime and pose a significant risk to the community,” said District Attorney George Brauchler. “Neither of those facts is diminished by the existence of COVID 19. The community is not safer or healthier when we force those who pose the greatest risk to our safety back into our neighborhoods, while we are shut in at home.”
“It is unconscionable that activists are using a time of pandemic to further extreme political goals,” Brauchler added. “Elected officials, governments, employers and citizens statewide are doing everything they can to stop the spread of this virus everywhere – including prisons and jails. Now is not the time to employ scare tactics to coax unneeded mandates that put our community at risk. Measures already in place are appropriate, and are able to balance pandemic concerns with community safety issues.
“The Chief Justice was right to allow individual jurisdictions, including the sheriffs elected to manage county jails, to deal with this issue in a way that best fits their specific situation and resources, even if it doesn’t match the criminal defense attorney-favored suggestions. Local control continues to be the best answer.”