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“A constant juggling act” in Denver jails as rising population stretches understaffed sheriff department

With 263 of 875 deputy positions empty, the sheriff’s department must constantly move inmates between housing units and facilities


Denver sheriff’s deputies work in processing as inmates come into Denver City Jail in downtown Denver on Oct. 13, 2022.

Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

By Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post

DENVER - At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Denver safety leaders praised changes that cut the jail population by half and pledged to continue efforts to minimize the number of people incarcerated at the city’s two jails.

“If I had the ability to decrease the jail that quickly … my question is this: Why did we have them in jail in the first place?” then-Director of Public Safety Murphy Robinson told City Council members in a July 29, 2020, meeting. “That is a question I continue to ask and I continue to challenge our sheriff as well as the other members of the criminal justice system to really focus in on that question. I would really like to try and keep our jail population low.”

Two years later, the number of people incarcerated in Denver’s jails has returned to pre-pandemic levels. The rising jail population is putting an increased strain on a department where nearly a third of all deputy positions are empty. The lack of staff and higher inmate numbers mean more overtime costs and less programming for inmates.

With 263 of 875 deputy positions empty, the sheriff’s department must constantly move inmates between housing units and facilities to consolidate inmates into as few housing units as possible so that fewer deputies are needed, said Major Kelly Bruning, who oversees the Denver Downtown Detention Center.

“It’s a constant juggling act – where we can put people, where we can house them,” said Denver sheriff Major Scott Happ, who oversees the county jail.

The department is routinely at or slightly below minimum staffing levels, despite a requirement that all staff members work 24 hours of overtime each month, Happ said. Sometimes a single deputy is assigned to monitor a housing unit with dozens of low-risk inmates. If minimum staffing isn’t met, deputies lock down housing units and keep inmates in their cells for longer periods of time.

“We’re always trying to find ways to give them more out time because ultimately the happier the inmate is the less problems they cause,” Happ said.

The sheriff’s department worked with the ACLU of Colorado and the Colorado Freedom Fund to reduce the jail population in 2020. To see the jail population rise again despite the work is disappointing, said Taylor Pendergrass, director of advocacy and strategic alliances for the ACLU of Colorado.

“It’s a huge missed opportunity for Denver to have made those changes permanent,” he said.

Premature thinking?

Staff from all of Denver’s public safety agencies made changes to help lower the jail population in the spring and summer of 2020, said Armando Saldate, director of the Department of Public Safety.

They reviewed the jail rosters and worked to release people who were elderly, those who had served most of their sentence and those on nonviolent, low-level crimes, he said. The Denver Police Department in March 2020 decided to issue summons instead of making arrests in low-level, non-violent property and drug crimes. Judges started issuing more personal recognizance bonds, which allow people to bail out of jail without paying money.

The average combined daily jail population of the Downtown Detention Center and the County Jail dropped from 1,799 on March 15, 2020, to a low of 950 on July 2, 2020. Since then, the jails’ populations have ticked back up.

“To think that that was sustainable was kind of premature,” Saldate said. “I never thought we could stay under 1,000. I was thinking we could hopefully stay around 1,500 and 1,600 and 1,700.”

On Thursday, the jails’ population was 1,804, which is on par with the daily averages recorded before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The increase in the jail population is due to more arrests, including a large portion of people arrested on warrants from other jurisdictions, Saldate said. The Denver Police Department ended its pandemic policy of issuing summons instead of making arrests for low-level crimes and jail intakes have increased, in part due to a rise in some crimes, Saldate said.

There’s nothing stopping Denver public safety leaders from continuing to use the tools they used to lower the jail population in 2020, Pendergrass said. Lowering the jail population would reduce the strain on the overworked deputies.

“All of those questions are just as pressing now as they were during the midst of the pandemic,” he said.

Denver isn’t the only jurisdiction jailing more people since 2020.

The statewide jail population dropped by more than a third between Jan. 1, 2020, and Jan. 1, 2021 — from 11,698 to 7,196. But the jails have refilled since then. The statewide jail population was 12,136 on July 1, according to the most recent data available from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.

About 73% of the people in Colorado’s county jails on July 1 had not been sentenced and were held while awaiting trial, the data shows.

About 90% of the 1,801 people held in the Denver jails on Thursday were awaiting trial. The remaining 10% were serving sentences. The most common charges people were booked into the jail on are warrants from other jurisdictions, assault, trespassing and disturbing the peace, according to Denver Sheriff Department data.

Next steps

The Denver Sheriff Department is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to recruit and retain people to manage the jails.

Deputies will receive a 4% raise in 2023 and a retention bonus of up to $7,000, said Maj. Janelle Orozco, who heads recruiting efforts at the department. New hires are eligible for up to $3,000 in signing bonuses. The department also increased overtime pay from one and a half a deputy’s regular hourly rate to double.

The Denver Department of Public Safety is creating a center that will serve as an alternative to jail for people suspected of low-level crimes, like drug paraphernalia possession and trespassing, Saldate said. He hoped the center will keep people out of jail and instead connect them to health services, he said. He also hopes to revitalize the city’s Crime Prevention and Control Commission, which is tasked with decreasing the use of the jail and reducing recidivism.

“We’re getting up to this jail population now — not surprising,” he said. “Do I think that we’ve solved the problem of crime by getting back up to this level? No. I think we need to be very smart and intentional still about who is in our jail and making sure that those 1,800 are really those offenders that are a threat to our public safety and our community or serving a sentence.”