Colorado’s biggest jails drop population by a third as sheriffs combat spread of coronavirus


The number of people locked up in Colorado’s biggest jails has dropped by nearly a third as county sheriffs continue mitigating the risk of coronavirus spreading inside their facilities.

The total population of the 15 largest county jails in Colorado dropped to 7,708 on Friday, 31% less than the combined average daily population of 11,002 the facilities reported in January, according to data collected by the ACLU of Colorado and provided to The Denver Post. Some jail’s populations have dipped to low numbers not seen for more than a decade.

The plummeting populations are the result of efforts by law enforcement, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys in some jurisdictions to keep as many people as possible out of the jails. But the decrease in population won’t adequately prevent the coronavirus until there’s enough space in the jails for the facilities to truly practice social distancing, said Rebecca Wallace, staff attorney at the ACLU of Colorado.

Jails are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus, medical professionals, civil rights advocates and some law enforcement have said. Inmates and staff often cannot stay six feet apart. Those locked up often share cells and sleep feet from each other. Unlike prisons, where people serve years-long sentences, people are booked in and released daily in jails. In the last three months of 2019, about 53,000 people were booked into the Colorado’s jails and a similar number released, according to state data.

Gov. Jared Polis last week issued guidance that Colorado’s criminal justice system should work to reduce the number of people detained across the state while maintaining public safety. The guidance is not mandatory, however, and the success of jail depopulation varies by local jurisdiction.

“It’s not uniform across the state in a way that we’d like to see,” Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU, said. “We’d hope to see even greater depopulation numbers as time goes on.”

Historic drops

Some jails have lowered their populations by placing some inmates on ankle monitors and releasing them to home detention. Many have relied on law enforcement to issue more summons in lieu of arresting suspects, restricting the number of new book-ins. Most of the large jails have seen their populations drop nearly every day of the past week.

The Jefferson County jail saw the largest decrease of the 15 facilities. Its population dropped to 747 on Monday, a 43% decrease from the average daily population of 1,303 it reported in January. Similar populations haven’t been seen in the county since 2004, according to data from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

The county reduced its population by releasing some inmates with less than 50% of their sentences left and lowering bonds when possible so that an inmate could be released without paying any money.

“Although these actions have succeeded in reducing our inmate population significantly in the past week, they are by no means a success,” Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Shrader said in a letter last week. “Instead, they are unpalatable for us and unpopular for the public. But during this unprecedented crisis we have to be socially responsible in how we enforce the law, protect the public, and serve our citizens, including those in our care and custody.”

Denver’s jail population saw the second-largest decrease. It dropped by 37% to 1,302 on Sunday from the average daily population of 2,060 it reported to state authorities for the previous year. Denver city officials announced Monday that an inmate at the downtown jail had tested positive for COVID-19 — the first jail inmate in the state to test positive.

Other counties have seen their jail populations drop less drastically, like Weld, Washington and Douglas, according to the ACLU’s data.

The Weld County jail’s population has fallen 15% from its average daily population of 754 to the 639 inmates recorded Monday. The jail is at 85% of capacity, but Weld County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Joe Moylan said the facility has enough space should inmates need to be quarantined. Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams did not have time for an interview Tuesday, Moylan said.

“We feel that if COVID-19 does show up in the jail, with all the extra capacity we have, we feel we have a lot of flexibility,” Moylan said.

There are no discussions of releasing inmates early from the jail, Moylan said, though there is a plan to quarantine should an inmate test positive for COVID-19. The jail, located in the county with the third-highest number of COVID-19 deaths, is screening inmates as they are booked into the facility and holding new arrestees in dedicated housing units so they can be observed before adding them to the general population, he said. The jail has tested two inmates for COVID-19 and both tests came back negative.

“We’ve got these guys and girls spaced out as much as possible,” Moylan said.

Simply having a plan to quarantine isn’t enough if there’s no room in a jail to follow the federal social distancing guidelines, Wallace of the ACLU said. The ACLU and other criminal justice groups are calling on the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court to order the release of some inmates, Wallace said. The New Jersey Supreme Court issued such an order, releasing about 1,000 jail inmates with the stroke of a pen.

“Where is the statewide judicial leadership for a pandemic that knows no geographic boundaries,” Wallace said.