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The Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center is seen on Tuesday, July 13, 2021 in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s largest jails are becoming more crowded after population levels dropped to historic lows last year as officials made efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. 

Now, as the world returns to a version of “normal” and court hearings have resumed, numbers are creeping closer to pre-pandemic levels at many of Colorado’s largest jails. It’s a move that criminal justice advocates say is unnecessary, pointing to the pandemic as proof that lowering the incarceration rate in the state is possible.  

The cuts were a collaborative effort by law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges to keep as many people as possible out of jail, as public health officials warned the facilities’ cramped quarters made social distancing nearly impossible. But data collected by The Colorado Sun shows that the numbers began to rise only five months after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Colorado and long before vaccinations were readily available. 

And they continue to climb. While the jails in Denver, El Paso, Adams, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Larimer, Douglas and Boulder counties are still less crowded than they were before the start of the pandemic, some fear numbers will soon return to pre-pandemic levels.

Chronic overcrowding inside some of Colorado’s county jails, where people are held as they await trial, has been a leading argument behind some officials’ push to build larger facilities to house the growing number of those being arrested.

Meanwhile, organizations like the ACLU say there’s no need to keep people who have been accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes behind bars if they pose no threat to the community. 

Unlike prisons, the jail population is a constant churn as people are arrested, released on bond or take a plea deal and can leave. Some unable to afford bond can be kept in jail for months before going before a judge, even if they are only being investigated for a low-level offense.

“I think most definitely the jail population numbers need to be kept at record lows,” said Denise Maes, public policy director of the ACLU. “There are lots of reasons for that, but first and foremost, when we did see record lows, the sky did not fall…”

Though there’s a lower health risk for those inside jails now, with the help of the vaccine and herd immunity, Maes said there’s still a need to keep population levels low to avoid funneling money into county jails and to protect those arrested from the consequences of being jailed, such as the loss of jobs or housing. 

She recalled conversations early in the pandemic, when stakeholders, including some sheriffs, agreed that policies aimed at reducing the jail population during a health crisis should have been the status quo.

Some jurisdictions limited the number of people being booked into jail by issuing summons to court rather than jailing them for petty crimes. Other policies included refusing inmates from other jails, if being transported from another facility, and requiring all inmates to wear masks when outside the facility, while headed to court or on work release. 

During the pandemic, people who participated in work-release programs at some jails were allowed to go home after their shift, rather than returning to the detention facility, Maes said.

While officials in some larger cities have blamed policies freeing people from jail for a rise in crime, there is little indication that those people are behind the increase

“What I find troubling about the increase is, months ago, when we were having conversations with sheriffs and different folks involved in this effort to reduce the population, they all agreed that there were certain practices that they should have been incorporating all along,” Maes said. “They were certainly supportive then and somewhat committed to keeping those practices on an ongoing basis.”

Back in the spring of 2020, jail levels dropped by an average of 46% statewide, according to data collected by the ACLU. From January to May, the total population for jails across the state fell from nearly 13,000 to just below 6,000 — a level the state hadn’t seen since 1994, the nonprofit reported.

“I don’t know what practices have not continued that have caused the increase, but clearly we are back to the mentality that we don’t need to decrease our jail population because there is not a pandemic and that is unfortunate,” Maes said.

In Boulder County, the Sheriff’s Office, the district attorney and chief district judge collaborated to create a set of arrest standards aimed at reducing the jail population, but as public health officials lifted restrictions within the community, police chiefs began to worry about a rise in crime, said Jeff Goetz, who oversees operations at Boulder County jail.

Cases that involved a victim, like an assault, would require jail stays, but those accused of property crimes would receive a summons and be given a court date, Goetz said.

But in September, the jail population began to rise as the arrest standards were amended, including a change to how many warrants would require a jail stay, he said. At the onset of the pandemic, a person with fewer than six warrants wouldn’t be required to stay in jail. Months later, officials lowered that standard to three, he said.

As auto theft increased in April, those accused of stealing cars, which was previously deemed a property crime, were also required to be booked into jail, he said. 

“Over the past four months, it has been creeping up,” Goetz said of the jail’s population levels. 

The reduced population levels in jails across the state allowed for sheriff’s offices to have a better handle on the virus, Goetz said, adding that in about a month, he will look at COVID infection rates in the county and potentially reassess arrest standards. 

“If we reach another outbreak or another pandemic status, we’ll roll back to what they were back in April of last year, after COVID turned on, so we can get a handle on the population. The problem with jails is that you only have a limited place to put folks,” he said.

Goetz said he thinks the changes the pandemic forced jails to adopt have taught leaders a lot about the criminal justice system.

“I think there were some positive lessons that came out of COVID that we as a whole, whether it be the sheriffs who control the arrest standards, the DAs who charge everybody, whether it be the courts that can deal with the bonds and sentencing of these folks,” Goetz said. “We need to seriously look back at lessons learned over the last 15 months here. We’ve proven that not everybody has to come to jail, like what was happening before.” 

Changing tactics to reduce jail population

As infection levels spiked in Colorado Springs and El Paso County, the Sheriff’s Office implemented new arrest policies and the jail population dropped by about 30% in the early months of the pandemic, according to spokeswoman Lt. Deborah Mynatt. 

Before the pandemic, there was an average of about 1,530 people in the jail daily, but pandemic-related changes dropped the census to an average of 1,165 last year, Mynatt said. 

Law enforcement was encouraged to issue a summons to those who were suspected of committing non-violent crimes, especially if they showed symptoms of COVID-19, such as a cough or a fever, she said. Personal recognizance bonds were issued at the time of the arrest rather than inside the jail, she said.

When police issued a warrant for someone who failed to appear in court, they were issued a new court date instead of being booked into jail, Mynatt added.

Even with the new policies and lower number of inmates, the jail became a hotbed for the spread of the virus. In April, a 41-year-old jail deputy died from COVID-19.  Months later, in November, the jail became the site of one of the state’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks and largest among the state’s jail and prisons after more than 1,000 inmates contracted the virus. 

“Lives are back to a normal pace,” Mynatt said, “but our overall numbers have stayed consistently low in comparison to the start of the pandemic.” 

There were about 930 inmates in the Arapahoe County Detention Center in Centennial in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic. Policies enacted to reduce the spread of the virus dropped that number to 670 the following month, said Capt. Dan Joyce, captain of detention operations. 

While the numbers began to climb in September, Joyce said the average population has remained about 690 since December. The Arapahoe County jail has begun to roll back the COVID-related restrictions, he said.

Law enforcement was largely focused on public health risks inside Colorado’s county jails, but Maes said incarceration presents additional risks to those behind bars.

“The very purpose of jailing someone is to protect the community and so if someone doesn’t present a safety risk, it seems really ridiculous to be spending money on a jail bed,” she said.

Jails stays often jeopardize a person’s job and family and can affect one’s mental health or worsen existing mental health conditions, she added.

“They are presumptively innocent,” Maes said. “They could lose their jobs, they can lose their housing, they can lose their children.”  

The plummeting jail population numbers and subsequent rebound were seen nationwide. By the middle of 2020, the number of people in jails across the country was at its lowest in more than two decades, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, which collected population data from about half of the county’s jails.

By the middle of last year, the number of people held in jails across the U.S. dropped from 758,000 by nearly one-quarter, as county officials reduced arrest rates and court operations were put on a hiatus, according to the report. 

From mid-2020 to March 2021, the number of people in jails rose again by more than 70,000, reaching about 650,000, The Marshall Project reported.

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer based in Colorado Springs for The Colorado Sun, covering breaking news, wildfires and all things interesting impacting Coloradans. Before joining The Sun, Olivia covered criminal justice for The Colorado Springs Gazette. She’s also worked at newspapers in New Orleans and New Jersey, where she grew up. After graduating college, she lived in a tiny, rural town in southern Madagascar for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. When not writing, Olivia enjoys backpacking and climbing Colorado’s tallest peaks.