It has often been said that when temperatures go up, so does crime.
That may be the case at the La Plata County Jail, which exceeded capacity earlier this month, forcing the sheriff to ask for a judicial order allowing him to release low-level offenders to prevent overcrowding.
Sheriff Sean Smith also asked local law enforcement to start issuing more personal-recognizance bonds – in which suspects promise to show up in court or be subject to a bail penalty – instead of taking so many offenders to jail.
“It’s really just ensuring that we’re utilizing the jail for what it really needs to be utilized for,” Smith said. “That we have space for people that are felons and violent and that cause some kind of risk to the community, and not for every misdemeanor offense that we can find.”
The jail reached capacity in mid-June when it had 228 inmates – 11 more than its listed capacity of 217 inmates. Nineteen inmates were released after being reviewed by a judge. As of Wednesday, the jail was housing 190 inmates.
Chief District Judge Jeffrey Wilson issued an order June 15 allowing the jail to refuse housing certain criminal offenders if it has more than 200 prisoners already in custody. Those offenders include anyone arrested for a nonviolent offense or a drug offense that is considered a Class 4 felony or lower; anyone with a county court warrant for failure to appear with a bond of $10,000 or less; and anyone with a district court warrant with a bond of $25,000 or less.
The jail still accepts suspects with out-of-district warrants, no-bond warrants, people who face probation revocation and all defendants arrested for domestic violence.
“It’s low-level felonies and non-violent misdemeanors that we’re authorized to reject,” said Lt. Gary Boudreau with the La Plata County Jail.
Anyone released from custody under the new guidelines will be issued a personal-recognizance bond.
“I think with this order coming out, the judicial system is maybe giving people the benefit of the doubt on PR bonds,” Boudreau said.
Discussions about how to solve the jail’s space issue have been ongoing over the past six months, Smith said. The judicial order, called an “arrests standards document,” was based on a similar policy issued a couple of years ago in Mesa County.
“Other communities have been through this and figured it out, and it’s not unresolvable,” Smith said. “It’s locally-driven policies that really focus on community safety that make a difference for some of the other communities that have been successful in that.”
The jail has not yet had to refuse any inmates, but if the jail exceeds 200 inmates again, the judge’s order immediately goes into effect, Smith said.
When the jail went over capacity earlier this month, the Sheriff’s Office reopened a portion of the old jail to house some of the lowest-level offenders. But Smith doesn’t want to depend on the old jail because it creates staffing and safety problems, he said. He also does not want to build a new jail or expand the current one.
“We have taken some steps to be able to prepare to use the old jail, but we’d rather solve this proactively in discussions with all of our partners and come up with the best plan,” Smith said. “We want to use proactive policy and try to avoid ever having to get to the point where we have to build.”
The population of the jail has grown steadily over the past several years, Boudreau said.
“We’re just getting there,” he said. “It’s the nature of a growing community.”
About 40 inmates come from other jurisdictions, including Archuleta County, San Juan County and the U.S. Marshal’s Office.
Archuleta County houses 22 to 30 inmates at any given time at the La Plata County Jail – ever since its jail flooded in April 2015. Archuleta County prisoners are also subject to the release order.
Archuleta County Sheriff Rich Valdez said he has instructed deputies to use judgment when determining which individuals to take to the La Plata County Jail. Deputies have been using similar judgment ever since the jail flooded, he said.
“We’re looking at every case, case-by-case, to determine whether or not they need to go to jail,” Valdez said. “We’ve been doing that since Day 1 because of the circumstances.”
A ballot measure to fund a new jail in Archuleta County narrowly failed in November, and a similar measure will likely be on the ballot again this election cycle. Valdez hopes the county’s situation resonates with voters.
“I don’t know how it will affect the ballot coming up, but I hope it helps people get a better understanding of the need that, unfortunately, whether we like it or not, we have no choice but to build a jail,” he said.
One issue voters had with the proposed jail last election was the size, he said. It would have been able to hold 54 inmates, far more than the number Archuleta County typically sends across county lines. However, those numbers don’t account for the personal-recognizance bonds deputies issue to minimize the number of inmates they transport.
“That’s one of those things that kind of came back on us,” Valdez said. “We were doing everything we could to minimize the amount of inmates we were transporting to La Plata County. They’re (La Plata County) not seeing the individuals that are on pre-trial and they’re not seeing the ones that should be in jail but aren’t.”