DENVER – A new ACLU of Colorado report “COVID-19 Jail Depopulation in Colorado: An Unexpected Path Forward” found that jail depopulation in Colorado has been smart, safe, and thoughtful, with a clear focus on reserving jail beds for people who pose a threat to others. This report uses original data and research to assess the impact of depopulation policies implemented in response to the COVID-19 public health crisis and calls on legislators to memorialize these policies into law in 2021 to maintain low jail populations.
The ACLU of Colorado report finds that in an unprecedented move to protect public health, actors in the criminal legal system have worked together to dramatically decrease Colorado’s now on-the-rise jail population, which had previously fallen by 46% statewide since March. At the peak of depopulation, the 6,000 fewer people sleeping in jail every night allowed for over 20,000 more people to live free in the community each month. In a matter of months, jail populations dropped to levels not seen in almost thirty years. As a result of this depopulation, Colorado’s jails are now at 47% capacity on average, compared to 81% before the pandemic. Lower jail occupancy makes a safer environment for both incarcerated people and staff.
The report contains supportive quotes from several Sheriffs, who acted as a primary driver of depopulation. “In August 3 years ago, we had 1,830 inmates. Today we are at 1,200, and the community is no less safe,” said El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder. “We should take this moment and make lasting changes that will make jails safer and keep people who are not a danger to others in their jobs or home with their families.”
Even as jail populations are down, crime rates remain level statewide and pretrial misconduct remains low. In Colorado’s fourteen largest counties, which account for over 80% of Colorado’s population, the almost 3,000 fewer incidents in 2020 compared to 2019 defined a 4% drop in crime. In other words, Colorado does not have to choose between public safety and public health. In fact, jail depopulation has the added benefit of creating substantial potential savings for counties and taxpayers. If Colorado were able to sustain the 46% drop in jail population, it would save at least $210 million taxpayer dollars statewide per year. These millions would be better spent addressing the root causes of crime.
“COVID-19 jail depopulation has shown that we do, in fact, know how to quickly, dramatically and safely free thousands of people from behind bars,” said ACLU of Colorado Public Policy Director Denise Maes. “It is tragic that it took a global emergency for actors in Colorado’s criminal legal system to work together to reduce the number of people in jail. It would be even more tragic if we walk away from this pandemic having learned nothing.”
Unfortunately, even as COVID-19 continues to spread behind bars, Colorado’s jail population has risen by 17% since July. We cannot accept a return to the “normal” that not only greatly exacerbated the impact of this pandemic, but also harmfully imprisoned tens of thousands of Coloradans each month. Colorado has an opportunity to save lives, money, families and jobs, all while honoring the promise of our Constitutional presumption of innocence. The time to act and build a better Colorado is now.
“I think there is this thought out there that when COVID-19 is over, we will flip the switch, and go back to business as usual,” said Mesa County Sheriff Matt Lewis. “That is my greatest fear. COVID-19 is terrible but there are opportunities to learn. We have been using jail to try to solve too many problems that cannot be solved by incarceration, like drug addiction and homelessness. We shouldn’t go back to overcrowded jails. We can do better.”
COVID-19 Jail Depopulation in Colorado: https://aclu-co.org/sites/default/files/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/aclu_decarcerationreport_100720_final.pdf
ACLU of Colorado COVID-19 Decarceration Campaign: https://aclu-co.org/campaigns/covid-19-decarceration/
The ACLU of Colorado is the state’s oldest civil rights organization, protecting and defending the civil rights of all Coloradans through litigation, education and advocacy.