By Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly
At Larimer County, we take pride in providing great service to our citizens. Modern facilities help make that possible. However, some of our facilities are antiquated — they were built in a different time — and no longer function to serve the current population.
For example, our Fleet Services Facility is so old that modern sized equipment can’t be pulled into the shop, forcing staff to do maintenance work on road graders and landfill equipment outside. The second floor, where offices were once located, has been condemned.
In 1983 the county jail was constructed to serve all municipalities and unincorporated areas. It has been expanded several times. Yet, best practices and standards for operations have evolved since 1983.
The outdated design of the jail inhibits the county’s ability to meet present-day standards for supervision, the housing of a diverse inmate population, and providing physical and mental health treatment.
Moreover, chronic overcrowding at the jail increases stress on the facility, the inmates and jail deputies. Remodeling the existing facility when it is operating over capacity is nearly impossible.
Larimer County has included in our 2019 budget funding to update the jail to solve these problems. The bulk of the $75 million project budget will provide for updated support service areas such as the kitchen, laundry, sally-port, and medical service areas.
A part of the project will add housing units to reduce reliance on old, outdated inmate housing areas. The county is planning to use existing resources, rather than asking for a new tax, to fund these upgrades.
Larimer County has postponed this necessary remodel for at least a decade. Instead, we’ve been proactive in reducing the growth of the jail population despite the growth of our community. For every 100,000 people, the incarceration rate was 229 in 2016 nationally. In contrast, Larimer County’s incarceration rate was 157 in 2018 while neighboring Weld County’s was about 245.
We have used creative alternative corrections programs to reduce the incarceration rate. Currently, more offenders are serving their sentence in one of these innovative programs than in our county jail.
Also, Larimer County’s robust pre-trial services program supervises about 3.2 times the number of people incarcerated at the jail.
These programs to keep low-level offenders out of jail are recognized as the best in Colorado. Unfortunately, our community has seen a substantial increase in felony filings within the Eighth Judicial District. Felony filings rose from 1,903 in 2013 to 3,303 in 2018 — a 73 percent increase in five years. As a result, the need for jail beds has also continued to rise.
We know jails are expensive. But we must modernize and expand the jail to correct deficiencies and ease overcrowding.
This project will provide crucial medical and mental health treatment space, and it will improve the outdated kitchen, laundry, and mechanical systems resulting in increased energy efficiency. The end result will reduce overcrowding and high staff-to-inmate ratios.
It is Larimer County’s mission to uphold and advance the community’s health, safety, well-being and quality of life. It is our responsibility to address these problems now, to secure the bright future of our community.
Tom Donnelly is one of three Larimer County Commissioners. He resides in District 3 and represents all of Larimer County.