Mar. 2—Four state legislators introduced a first-of-its-kind bill Jan. 10 aimed at ensuring the enforcement of statewide jail standards for the next nine-and-a-half years, along with mandatory jail evaluations to guarantee the new standards are met.

State Rep. Judy Amabile, a Democrat representing House District 49, is a sponsor of the bill, HB 24-1054. She said it’s aimed at improving statewide jail conditions to ensure the safety of inmates and jail staff.

“This whole thing that we developed was carefully negotiated and discussed and worked out between the advocates and the sheriffs and it’s a big change because the state has had no role, up until now,” Amabile said.

The bill, which Amabile hopes will become law in July, would allow for an oversight committee to adopt jail standards proposed by a former commission and revise them moving forward. When the committee revises a standard, jails would have one year or less to comply.

Proposed standards touch on topics including health and mental health; visitation; food standards classification; staffing; recreation and programming; sanitation and environmental conditions; restrictive housing and security.

‘Everyone wants change but no one wants to pay for the change’

Boulder County Jail Division Chief Jeff Goetz said he’s not against the concept behind the bill, but doesn’t believe there is the funding needed to implement the proposed standards the committee would adopt and revise.

“Everyone wants change but no one wants to pay for the change,” Goetz said.

Goetz said the proposed standards would put commissioners in tough spots, with some needing to figure out how to pay for remodels or new jails.

“You go down to Bent County or some of those tiny places, their entire budget for their jail is $100,000,” Goetz said. “I have five inmates in here who spend over $100,000 a month on medication. So the little jails and the big jails are going to have the hardest time, I think, with this bill.”

He continued, “If all jails are going to be held to a standard, they all need to be built the same way. They were not and will not be built the same way.”

According to the Boulder County Commissioners’ website, in 2023, the commissioners allotted $71,833,950.97 to the sheriff’s office. Of that, 43.81%, or $31,472,906.23, was to be used by the jail.

Goetz said the jail is 97-98% up-to-date on the proposed standards, but is still struggling with ADA compliance, which ensures accessible design for those with disabilities, and restrictive housing, which is any unit that houses inmates separate from the general population.

“The restrictive housing is going to be a day-by-day struggle just because of how small our jail is and the amount of population that we have,” Goetz said. “That is always going to be a struggle, and that is a part of this bill.”

According to Goetz, the Boulder County Jail was built in 1988 when ADA requirements were very different.

“When you have something that is older and you’re trying to get it up to specs for the new versions of what ADA stands for in this case, that’s going to be very, very expensive,” Goetz said. “Without having funding being available to make these adjustments that are going to be needed, there’s going to be places that are going to be out of compliance.”

Goetz doesn’t understand why a jail attorney was not included in the initial commission that recommended the standards, as they would have provided insight on the fiscal component of the bill. According to Goetz, jail construction currently costs roughly $1,000 per square foot on the Front Range.

Amabile said the bill would pay for a study into how jails can receive adequate funding to adopt the required standards. She said legislators are looking at federal, state and local grants that counties could pursue to make the changes needed, to be compliant with the standards.

‘Lift up every jail and make it more consistent’

The bill would also require the advisory committee and state’s attorney general to conduct jail assessments once every three years to monitor compliance with the standards. The attorney general would also conduct independent special assessments when requested by the governor, oversight committee or a county sheriff.

“The idea here isn’t to punish the jails, but to lift up every jail and make it more consistent and make sure that not only the people there are protected, but the people working in the jails are working in a good environment where they are protected,” Amabile said.

Amabile said the advisory committee would be made up of two county commissioners, two sheriffs, a physical or behavioral health professional with experience working in a jail, the state public defender or their designee and one person from a Colorado organization that advocates for incarcerated people.

Goetz is unsure how the advisory group will have the time and funding to conduct all the assessments.

“I would assume that the first couple of reviews are going to be a heartache for everybody involved until a process gets figured out,” Goetz said. “Five years from now this will probably be a non-issue.”

According to the Colorado government’s website, the bill would create a jail standards advisory committee cash fund that will be used to fund the activities of the committee.

Amabile said counties that are struggling to meet a standard would be able to apply to the advisory committee for a variance.

“For instance, if a jail has three cells and one is smaller than the standards require, that jail can apply to the committee for a variance,” Amabile said in an email. “They might say, we will use the other two cells first and need a variance for the third over a specific amount of time. That will go on the record and the jail will need to address the issue as the variance allows.”

‘We’re on a road now that we haven’t been on before’

If the bill is passed, jails will have until July 1, 2026, to implement the proposed standards. Amabile said a lot of the larger jails are already upholding a lot of the standards while the others are working toward adhering to them.

Amabile added that if none of the jails are able to achieve a specific standard, legislators will question how realistic the standard is and how it is written.

Overall, Amabile said there has been really good support for the bill, with little pushback.

Goetz said a majority of jails along the Front Range are in compliance with what the bill proposes, and that other jails in Colorado that are struggling to adopt the standards would have made the changes long ago — if they had the funding to do so.

Goetz would like to see more focus on mental health care and the expansion of accessible housing to the public, citing lack of housing as a factor that leads people to end up in jail.

“We keep focusing on now that they’re here, we need to focus on how they got here so we can stop that and change that narrative moving forward,” Goetz said. “They may not just stop coming to jail as soon as they get housing. But that amount of recidivism is going to drop. There’s a bunch of studies that prove that.”

Goetz continued, “Everyone wants housing unless it’s in their backyard.”

Amabile said the bill represents a pretty big step, as there hasn’t been any kind of oversight of jail standards, until now.

“We’re on a road now that we haven’t been on before and there will be things that come up and we have a mechanism in place to address them,” Amabile said.

“I think we’re in a really good place. It is going to make it safer for people in jails and that has ripple effects for the whole community.”

Source link