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Filled El Paso County jail comes at a cost

November 11, 2017 Updated: November 13, 2017 at 10:21 am
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Man who died in custody at El Paso County jail identified (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

El Paso County officials are discussing a move to reduce the jail population that could free up a few hundred beds at a time - potentially making room for paying customers.

Discussions about jail overcrowding at recent Board of County Commissioners meetings have touched on a little-known pitfall of having too many local inmates: lost revenue from once-lucrative detention contracts between the Sheriff's Office and agencies such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

From 2008 to 2015, ICE paid the county more than $11 million to house detainees - a windfall that has all but dwindled amid record-setting jail populations.

The county took in about $7,000 through August of this year, compared to a one-year high of nearly $2.7 million in 2009, Sheriff's Office records show.

"We don't have the space to manage what we've got today, let alone 100 extra inmates a day that are paying their portion," Sheriff Bill Elder said at a budget hearing Thursday, after Commissioner Peggy Littleton noted that the packed jail has left the Sheriff's Office unable to benefit from the ICE agreement as it has in the past.

Elder is open to reviving what he calls "selling beds," but not unless action is taken to sharply reduce the jail's average daily population of roughly 1,600 inmates, he told The Gazette after the meeting.

"Unless we're down in that 1,200 range, which is the optimum number, I'm not going to consider it. The staff needs a break," Elder said. "The return on investment is just not worth it at this point for a nominal amount of money when we're able to manage what we've got with the budget we've got."

It's a missed opportunity at a time when the Sheriff's Office is trying to absorb a $2.9 million annual increase in the cost of its medical contract after switching providers, from Correct Care Solutions to Armor Correctional Healthcare, earlier this year. Next year, the Sheriff's Office is expected to see an increase of about $2.4 million to its roughly $73 million budget. The hike will help offset the cost of the new contract, said Sheriff's Office Administrator Larry Borland.

The talk of lost revenue comes as the county weighs a proposal that could diminish the jail population by several hundred inmates.

The county is developing a plan to bolster its pretrial services program, allowing more inmates to be released on promises to appear rather than cash bonds, which have been criticized for keeping some low-risk inmates behind bars longer than necessary. Personal recognizance bonds are typically offered only to non-violent, low-level offenders. El Paso County offers fewer personal recognizance bonds than any county in the state, according to the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

Elder told commissioners improvements to pretrial services could free up 200 to 225 beds every day.

"If we're sitting at a 1,600 average daily population, and we can reduce that to 1,400, the load on our staff is exponentially relieved. Our goal is to look at every single opportunity we can to lower that number," Elder said during the hearing.

Falling revenues from the Sheriff's Office's ICE agreement were flagged at a preliminary budget hearing in September, when county Chief Financial Officer Nicola Sapp said the jail was having to "turn away" undocumented immigrants because it was so packed. Overcrowding has also led to a decline in the number of inmates the county is able to house for the Colorado Department of Corrections, which offers a lower daily rate for housing inmates than the federal immigration agency does.

At the height of the agreement, in the late 2000s, then-Sheriff Terry Maketa erected a tent to house overflow prisoners and maximize the county's ICE contract.

At the time, the Sheriff's Office was not only being paid by ICE to detain undocumented immigrants who were arrested locally on other charges, but also providing beds to detainees transported from elsewhere in the United States. The contract strictly applied to supervising inmates, not to apprehending them.

The money it pumped into the sheriff's budget paid for a $1.7 million facility next to the jail that now houses the county's 40-bed detox center. More recently, it helped finance the creation of a new jail records management system that went live in early 2017.

Under the contract, which took effect in 2008, ICE has agreed to pay the Sheriff's Office $88.72 per day for each detainee the jail houses. The detainee day rate was initially set at $62.40, but was increased this year to reflect the rising costs of housing inmates. The Sheriff's Office also earns about $28 an hour for transporting detainees.

Housing undocumented immigrants is seen as a potential boon for municipal and county governments under President Donald Trump, who promised during his campaign to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and signed an executive order ramping up enforcement efforts during his first month in office.

If the president plans to turn to local jails to house soon-to-be deportees, El Paso County is unlikely to be one of them.

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