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Inmate work release program discontinued at some Colo. jails

Several sheriffs directly referenced low staffing as a driving reason for the end of work release


The construction site for Boulder County’s Alternative Sentencing Facility, photographed in Boulder on Wednesday, June 5, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

AAron Ontiveroz/TNS

By Shelly Bradbury
The Denver Post

DENVER — For decades, people sentenced to jail for some low-level crimes in Denver had the opportunity to keep their day jobs.

They’d spend nights and weekends in jail, but on weekdays, they’d leave to go to work.

No more.

The Denver Sheriff Department discontinued its jail work-release program during the COVID-19 pandemic and has no plans to bring it back — part of a trend seen across Colorado as sheriffs wrestle with tight budgets and low staffing. They say they’re also adjusted to a shifting criminal justice ecosystem that increasingly aims to keep people convicted of minor offenses out of jail altogether.

“The pandemic flipped the whole justice system upside-down,” said Greg Mauro, director of Denver’s community corrections division.

At least 10 Colorado county jails — including in Denver and Colorado Springs — discontinued their work-release programs during the pandemic and did not reinstate them even when the health crisis eased, The Denver Post found. Other counties, like Boulder, have restarted, maintained or expanded their work-release options, and hundreds of people still complete the programs annually across the Front Range .

The shift away from the decades-old, oft-touted work-release model in Denver and other counties may send people to a traditional jail cell who in the past could have served time on work release, critics say. But sheriffs who spoke with The Post said the programs were labor intensive and underutilized in recent years.

“We have not explored revisiting the program because of the positive shift in alternatives to incarceration,” said Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins .

Many people who previously would have served time on work release instead are being sentenced to options such as probation or home detention, in which an offender is typically tracked with a GPS monitor and allowed to live at home and go to work, Diggins said.

But there are fewer people on home detention in Denver now than before the pandemic. And the end of the work-release program came as the city lost 60% of its halfway house beds, further limiting judges’ sentencing options.

“I would love if it was just a trade-off that people get into home detention instead of the work-release option,” said Nicholas Webber, the Denver County Court supervisor with the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender . “That has not been our experience at the county court level.”

Denver’s work-release shift

Denver’s work-release program operated out of a separate building on the grounds of the Denver County Jail in northeast Denver. It had room for about 100 participants before the sheriff shut it down in April 2020 amid concerns that inmates coming in and out of the facility would spread the coronavirus.

The program needed about 16 deputies to be staffed 24/7. Deputies would check inmates in and out, searching them for contraband each time, and call their workplaces or stop by to ensure inmates were following the rules of the program and traveling only to and from their jobs.

Work-release programs typically require inmates to pay a daily fee and historically have favored inmates with financial resources and reliable access to transportation.

Diggins said work release was not operating near its full capacity when it was disbanded. About 30 people were participating then, by Mauro’s estimate.

“There was a period of time many years ago where there was a larger number of people in the program, but as time went on, the program wasn’t as robustly utilized,” Diggins said.

Denver’s jails have fewer inmates now than they did before the pandemic, according to data published by the sheriff department. The jails’ average daily inmate population dropped from 2,100 in 2018 to 1,700 in the last year.

As of early June, only about 8% of inmates in the jail had been convicted of crimes and were serving sentences — people who in the past may have been eligible for work release. That proportion is down from about 16% of inmates two years ago, according to the sheriff’s office.

“As we looked at the reckoning of justice that happened after George Floyd , you began to see a movement in our field where keeping facilities at the lowest level possible for capacity was something sheriffs have had as a priority, to include me,” Diggins said, referring to the man whose killing by Minneapolis police in 2020 sparked nationwide racial justice protests.

The jail, he added, is seeing fewer people booked on misdemeanor crimes.

Unlike several sheriffs who, in comments to The Post, directly referenced low staffing as a driving reason for the end of work release, Diggins said freeing up deputies for other assignments was merely an “added benefit.”

But Deputy Mike Jackson, president of the Denver Sheriff Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 27, said low staffing was cited internally as the reason for permanently ending work release. The jails have been chronically understaffed for years.

“We always touted that we had the program and how important it was. But all the sudden it was like the politics went out of it,” Jackson said.

Because of the low numbers in Denver’s work-release program, its closure didn’t send an influx of people into community corrections. That division offers alternatives to jail or prison, including home detention, residential programs (better known as halfway houses) and supervision for people not yet convicted of a crime.

Home detention has typically been thought of as an alternative to work release in that it allows people to keep their jobs even while serving a sentence, Mauro said.

Yet the number of people sentenced to home detention in Denver declined annually since 2019, dropping from an average daily population of 148 in 2019 to about 54 in 2023. The program has seen an average daily population of 79 so far this year.

Mauro attributed that overall decline to sentencing reforms, particularly around driving-related criminal offenses — which typically accounted for many of the people serving time on home detention, he said. Before 2022, driving with a suspended license was a misdemeanor that could carry up to six months in jail, but now it’s a traffic offense with no possible jail time.

The end of work release hasn’t had a major impact on Denver criminal cases, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said in a statement.

But she noted it “was a good option in certain cases.”

“We would fully support bringing it back if the sheriff’s department believes it can be safely and effectively implemented,” she said.

The Office of the State Public Defender also wants to see work release return as an option, spokesman James Karbach said. He noted that even short jail sentences can force people to lose their jobs, which destabilizes them upon their release.

Work release gives “judges more options to try to balance an appropriate sentence without setting someone up to fail, or to have nothing,” he said. “Which is bad for us, and it’s bad for the whole community.”

Front Range still sees hundreds in work release The Post found that at least 10 Colorado county jails — most on the Front Range — still offer work release, with hundreds of people participating.

In Arapahoe County, which has offered work release since 1979, more than 300 people participated in 2023, and 117 have participated so far this year, a sheriff’s office spokeswoman said. Adams County’s program saw 352 participants in 2023 and 82 so far this year, Sgt. Adam Sherman said.

Jefferson and Boulder counties also have programs up and running, though both shifted during the pandemic from being jail-based to being housed in outside, privately run facilities.

In Boulder, work-release inmates lived in the jail and in two privately run halfway houses before the pandemic, Boulder County Sheriff Sgt. Jud Vaughan said. The jail-based unit closed during the pandemic and hasn’t reopened, which dropped the work-release program’s capacity by about 30 beds.

Still, 930 work-release participants passed through the halfway houses in 2023, Vaughan said. That was down from 1,300 people in work release in 2018.

“For us, we look at it as it is a very viable program for the community and to get people in the community,” Vaughan said.

The county is building a new 240-bed Alternative Sentencing Facility next to the Boulder County Jail . When complete, the building will house the work-release program, allowing the county to end its contracts with the halfway houses while increasing total work-release beds, Vaughan said.

Denver ended two of its major contracts with the private companies running the city’s halfway houses in 2019, more than halving city’s capacity for residential community corrections. City officials have slowly worked to rebuild that capacity in the last five years — the old work-release building at the Denver County Jail is now a halfway house with 48 beds — and by the end of June, the city will have about 275 available beds.

That’s down 63% from the 750 beds available in 2019.

Waitlists for the facilities, which primarily serve people convicted of felonies and people leaving prison, ballooned to nearly 300 in February 2023 before declining to 122 in April, Mauro said. People routinely wait around eight months for a spot in a halfway house, he said, usually spending that time in jail.

Mauro thinks fewer Denver judges are sentencing people to halfway houses because of the long waits.

“There absolutely has been a system correction, or reaction to, our lower capacity,” he said. “… In some cases, folks might end up with a prison sentence when they might have been afforded an opportunity in community corrections” when capacity was higher.

Alternatively, he said, people who violate their probation might get extra chances before being sent to a halfway house, which is considered a step toward prison. And people leaving prison who are looking for a halfway house might need to live in a different county or move straight to parole, without the structured release of a halfway house, he said.

Work release increasingly rare in rural areasIn the 13th Judicial District on Colorado’s northeastern plains, all four county jails offered work release before the pandemic. None do now, District Attorney Travis Sides said.

Officials in Logan, Kit Carson, Morgan and Washington counties suspended their programs during the pandemic, and they remain defunct largely due to inadequate staffing at the jails, he said. For the most part, he added, people who would have been sentenced to work release now serve time on home detention instead.

In 90% of cases, that’s a suitable replacement, he said. But home detention doesn’t seem like an appropriate punishment for some felony crimes, Sides said.

“It doesn’t let us sentence some cases as justly as we otherwise are able to,” he said of losing work release in the entire judicial district. “Frankly, the judge is stuck in a hard place. Do I give a sentence that is probably just and firm and fair — say, two or three months of jail — knowing the defendant is going to lose their job, but then they’re going to get out on probation and will need to have money and a job to pay for probation?”

Sides noted that while both home detention and work release allow inmates to go to and from work, the latter is a more punitive option because it deprives the participant of the comforts of home. Randy Roedema , the ex-Aurora police officer convicted of negligent homicide in the death of Elijah McClain , this month petitioned to change his 14-month work-release sentence to home detention, citing stressful and unhealthy conditions in the jail.

Work-release programs were also shut down during the pandemic in Baca, Eagle, Prowers and Grand counties and have not restarted, The Post found.

In Moffat County, which ended its work-release program well before the pandemic because of inadequate staffing, Sheriff KC Hume said he’s also noticed an overall shift away from jail time for minor crimes.

“I know we see that here in our judicial district: Individuals oftentimes are not held in custody where, in years past — or many years past — they might have,” he said. “I think there’s been a shift in the approach.”

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