Alternatives to jail prove effective

By Justin Smith

Fourteen years ago, the citizens of Larimer County approved a sales tax initiative that allowed for the replacement of outdated and overcrowded county justice facilities, including a desperately needed expansion of the county jail. The initiative also covered the operating costs for the jail expansion. That sales tax is scheduled to expire soon and will require reauthorization by the citizens to continue. I would like to take a few minutes to explain how we have worked to make best use of these dollars over the years.

Through the 90s and early 2000s, we experienced significant growth in our jail population, which mirrored national trends. In 2005, we reached a tipping point and realized that we must better manage the number of jail beds that we had, to assure we made best use of the space.

That year, we had an average daily jail population of 513 inmates, though the jail was built for 445. A criminal justice advisory council comprised of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, police and corrections officials was formed with the goal of reviewing our current procedures, comparing them against best practices from around the country.
Over the last six years, representatives from all these groups have worked together and made significant improvements to the system, assuring that our county has the most efficient, sustainable, and effective system possible.

We focused on keeping pretrial defendants out of jail and working when possible, providing the right kind of programs to reduce recidivism and maximizing the use of alternative sentences. This assured that minor offenders paid their debt to society – at a minimium cost to taxpayers.

One program that has proven very successful has been the offender notification program that calls defendants prior to their court date to assure they will show up, just as your dentist does for your appointment. This program has reduced failure-to-appear cases by 38 percent. We have implemented other programs to assure that persons in need of mental health services don’t end up in jail instead.

The bottom line results have been impressive so far. From 2005 to 2010, while the county population increased by approximately 10 percent, the jail population has been reduced by almost 10 percent, from 519 inmates daily to 469.

Currently we have 155 jail inmates per 100,000 residents, compared to 292 statewide and 242 nationally. This equates to an $8 to $13 million savings annually.

Over the coming weeks, the Board of County Commissioners will be considering proposals to continue a funding stream for the county jail into the coming years. I encourage you to look at the options so that we can continue to have a safe, secure, efficient and effective jail here in Larimer County.

Justin Smith is Larimer County Sheriff and was elected to the position in 2010.

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