Inside Denver's downtown detention center. Oct. 11, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty, Denverite)

This past summer’s worldwide protests against police brutality and calls to defund the police greatly increased discussions and renewed awareness of widespread structural and institutional racism that is normalized in America. 

The racial justice movement in America was clearly alive and well. It finally seemed possible to many that we could make substantial changes to mass incarceration and police brutality. 

Maddy Hughes

In Colorado, we have a unique opportunity to put those wheels in motion.

Senate Bill 62, titled “Jail Population Management Tools,” is a state legislative measure that’s already passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and will go to the Appropriations Committee next. State Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Adams County, are both sponsors.

The bill has garnered the support of Attorney General Phil Weiser; district attorneys Beth McCann of Denver, Alexis King of Jefferson and Gilpin counties and Alonzo Payne of the San Luis Valley; and even Sheriff Sean Smith of La Plata County. 

SB 62 is reasonable no matter which way you look at it. Financially, culturally, safety-wise, socially, it makes sense. 

It would reduce custodial arrests (arrests in which suspects are taken into custody) and replace them with a summons and complaint for misdemeanors and other low-level offenses, but still allow flexibility for custodial arrest if a suspect endangers others.

It would also end pretrial detention for these lesser offenses, allowing the same flexibility if the suspect poses a threat to others. And last but not least, it would limit the use of cash bail. 

Custodial arrests should be reduced because jail is a dehumanizing and often traumatizing experience that violently disrupts families and communities, and can destroy lives. 

Imagine being locked in a cage for a low-level offense, and knowing you would have the option of leaving if only you were born into more riches. 

Unfortunately, many marginalized groups in our communities don’t have to imagine what that’s like, as it’s they who bear the worst of the mass incarceration epidemic: 

  • Per the Vera Institute of Justice, Black people are locked up 4.3 times as often as whites in Colorado.
  • Latinx people in Colorado account for 20% of the population but 31% of all people in jail.
  • And, although half of all women in prison are there for nonviolent offenses, two-thirds of them are in jail because they cannot afford cash bail. 

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle has said that most inmates in Boulder Jail have a diagnosed mental illness. 

The Gazette of Colorado Springs reported this recently: “When Pelle became Boulder’s sheriff in 2003, about 15% of the people inside the county jail had a diagnosed mental illness, he said. Today, that number is between 60% and 70%, sometimes more. ‘The lack of community-based mental health solutions, the lack of civil beds, the lack of walk-in centers and crises centers — all of that has resulted in the last resort: the emergency department or the jail for people who are in crisis,’ Pelle said.”

We should also consider that those with untreated mental health diagnoses are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement. Knowing this alone, it’s obvious that we should not be sending people with mental illnesses to prisons, where there are no mental health professionals. 

The ACLU has provided plenty of devastating stories of Coloradans who died by suicide in jail because they couldn’t afford bail, and testimonials from survivors of assault who support this bill because they say jailing people for low-level offenses does not keep them safe. The Colorado Crime Survivors Network supports the bill, as do many community groups

It is no longer acceptable to treat systemic oppression with anything except urgency, and that is why we need this bill to pass. To be sure, we can expect there will be more and more bills and laws that seek to reverse the harm of centuries of racist policing and begin to restore communities in their real sense, to where they include everyone. 

Colorado has an opportunity to lead the charge with the reforms offered by this bill that would help keep our neighbors out of cages. 

And right now, Boulder citizens can influence the outcome of this bill. At this writing, Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg, D-Boulder, and Boulder DA Michael Dougherty have not yet come out in favor of the measure. Gov. Jared Polis, a Boulder resident, has to sign the bill if it passes for it to become law. Boulder residents have the attention of these officials and should therefore speak out about the need for this bill to pass. 

Maddy Hughes of Denver is a freelance journalist and a member of Denver chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

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