El Paso County jail

The El Paso County Criminal Justice Center. Photo courtesy El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

“Every judge” in Colorado should work to reduce the population of incarcerated people across the state amid the threat from COVID-19, a consortium of civil rights advocates and criminal justice groups said in a statement Wednesday.

The ACLU of Colorado, the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office and other groups issued a joint statement again raising alarms over the potential for the deadly virus to circulate among jails and prisons, where 35,000 people are incarcerated.

“The virus knows no geographic boundaries,” the statement said. The groups have warned that guards, officers and the public are likewise in danger as inmates cycle in and out of jails and penal institutions.

COVID-19 tests in short supply as jail reduces population

The statement called on Colorado Supreme Court Justice Nathan B. Coats to direct a uniform response among the state’s 22 judicial districts when it comes to releasing pretrial detainees and others who pose a limited risk until the threat has been reduced.

Coats, who has ordered the postponement of most jury trials, and all but “essential” court matters, has otherwise deferred to chief judges in each district to make decisions in their own districts.

That’s led to a fractured response in El Paso County, attorneys say. Decisions on whether to release inmates on personal-recognizance bonds varies by courtroom, depending on which judge hears a request and whether prosecutors object.  

Wednesday’s statement comes a day after Gov. Jared Polis issued a six-page guidance calling on law enforcement agencies to consider issuing court summonses to low-level offenders instead of jailing them. Polis also called on jails and prisons to prevent gatherings of more than 10 inmates at a time, wherever possible.

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The Colorado Department of Corrections has tested 9 inmates suspected of carrying the disease. Six were negative and three other tests are pending, prisons spokeswoman Annie Skinner said Wednesday. 

The El Paso County jail has cut its population to roughly 1,200, down from an average of 1,500, by suspending the work-release program and halting the transfer of out-of-county inmates to the jail, among other steps, The Gazette has reported.

The cuts have freed up space to isolate inmates who fall ill, said sheriff's Bureau Chief Clif Northam, who acknowledged the virus could unleash a “nightmare” scenario at the jail’s cramped quarters.

Seven inmates were under quarantine as of Wednesday, at least some of them with flulike symptoms, Northam said. That’s down from 10 one day earlier. The jail was able to obtain only one test for COVID-19; an inmate was tested on Thursday and results haven’t been announced.

El Paso County courts closed to public except for 'matters of immediate concern'

At a meeting of the El Paso County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday, Sheriff Bill Elder said new bookings were down from 100 per day to roughly 30 per day.   

The Public Defender’s Office has said that four of its employees have tested positive for the disease, according to published reports, raising concerns that inmates could be circulating the illness. Public defenders represent indigent clients and frequently meet with inmates. Among those sickened was at least one Colorado Springs public defender; the local office has since closed and its attorneys are appearing in court by phone.  

Other jails and law enforcement groups in Colorado have taken similar steps to reduce the threat from the novel coronavirus.

Even so, Colorado’s response has fallen short of the measures sought by the ACLU of Colorado.  

“The governor's guidance is a good first step,” Denise Maes, the public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado said in a statement Tuesday. “We need to see more from our courts and prosecutors in an effort to decrease the jail population and in-person court appearances.”

Gazette reporter Mary Shinn contributed to this story. 

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