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

Colorado lawmakers have backed off a measure to introduce new health, safety and operational standards in state jails, instead opting to pursue a study after pushback from sheriffs and counties. 

It follows the passage of a law last year, heavily opposed by sheriffs, to limit the use of solitary confinement in the state’s largest jails. 

The latest wrangling, over House Bill 1063, highlights a growing tension between Democratic lawmakers seeking greater oversight of jails, which fall under the purview of counties and their sheriffs, and local officials who are resistant to what they see as reforms handed down from the state without funding or proper input. 

“The financial realities of counties are, quite frankly, dire at the moment,” Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue, a Democrat, told lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee last month while testifying on behalf of Colorado Counties Inc. The consortium of county governments has not taken a position on the bill. “We have been asked to fund and support many reforms in the criminal justice area.”

The bill would create a temporary, 22-member commission responsible for recommending minimum standards for Colorado jails, including visitation rules, food and health care services, work and education requirements and restrictions on solitary confinement. Law enforcement and jail administrators, local officials, formerly incarcerated people, advocates for people with disabilities and mental health conditions and other parties would serve on the panel. 

Although the changes to the bill are “disappointing,” sheriffs and advocates see the resulting proposal as an opportunity to have detailed conversations about the impact of potential reforms and their costs, said state Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat and prime sponsor of the legislation. 

Amabile said she hopes it will set the stage for future legislation. The changes will also cut the cost of the original measure, which was estimated to create more than $1 million in new costs for the Department of Public Safety next year. 

“It’s a baby step,” Amabile said, pausing. “Maybe it’s not even a baby step, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

“It’s a tough year for criminal justice reform”

Although there are some federal and constitutional requirements, Colorado has no statewide standards for jail conditions or operations. It’s up to counties and their sheriffs to manage the operations of their facilities, which vary in size and operation.

Jackson County’s jail, located in the basement of a courthouse, typically has the capacity for four or five people, while Denver’s jail can house more than 2,000, according to state data

The original bill would have required the commission to develop minimum standards for jails, adopt a timeline for implementing them and consider “possible sanctions” for facilities that fail to meet requirements. The current bill would now only require the commission to deliver a report to the House Judiciary Committee with its recommendations for standards, as well as an analysis of the feasibility and cost of implementing them. 

Advocates with the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Law Colorado said they’re disappointed by the changes, but are holding lawmakers to their word that the commission’s recommendations will be put forth in future legislation to create enforceable standards for jails.  

Meghan Baker, an attorney for Disability Law Colorado who testified in favor of the measure, noted that inconsistent practices across the state, and a lack of oversight, make it difficult for people to pursue legal recourse if they are mistreated. 

“This is still an important first step in protecting the legal rights of incarcerated people — we currently have, like, one state law relating to county jails,” Baker said. “There were concessions made to get key parties on board. It’s a tough year for criminal justice reform.”

Sheriffs on the defensive 

The bill is partly a reaction to a measure Amabile passed last year, House Bill 1211, which created standards for the state’s largest jails for when people are housed in solitary confinement, including limits on how long they can be isolated and services people must receive. 

Proponents called it a key step toward protecting the state’s inmates from harmful conditions, including for those with serious mental illness or disabilities for whom extended isolation can be especially damaging. 

MORE: Colorado prisons have strict limits on when they can place inmates in solitary confinement. Jails could be next.

Sheriffs, a powerful voice at the state legislature and who opposed the bill, saw it as a prime example of one-off attempts by state lawmakers with no background in managing jails to impose an expensive solution without hearing them out, said Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, a Republican. 

Many sheriffs were also placed in a “reactionary position” because they “didn’t have the willingness to have the discussion” with lawmakers, Reams said. 

“You can either sit back and wait for it to happen to you, or you can be part of the process,” he added. 

The Colorado House chambers on the first day of Colorado’s special legislative session on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Despite the concerns, Reams said he sees the current bill as a positive step toward writing more constructive legislation that will consider the challenges and costs for local agencies. At a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee last month, Reams told lawmakers that developing minimum standards could also help jails avoid or defend themselves against lawsuits, and also prevent the need for future legislation.

“We all understand that standardizing operations provides more predictable outcomes, may help to limit special interest legislation and should reduce legal action that ties up our core systems and burdens the taxpayer with attorney costs,” Reams said. 

The House Judiciary Committee voted 7-4 to advance House Bill 1063 to the Appropriations Committee, with all four Republican lawmakers voting against it. 

State Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, a Watkins Republican, was skeptical the measure would have any meaningful effect. 

“How am I not to believe, with this high cost of putting this committee together, that this isn’t duplication of government, that our local authorities are already doing this?” Bockenfeld said. 

Thy Vo previously was a politics reporter for The Colorado Sun.