Eagle County jail’s work release program still growing
Vail, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY – Eagle County Jail inmate Michael Maher shot himself last month while in his own vehicle, out on the jail’s Work Release program, becoming the second inmate out of six to fail out of the program since it began in late April.
Maher got the gun from his storage shed, a shed he drove to freely while out on work release – a shed police never searched because they lacked probable cause for a search warrant.
The Work Release program is a kind of alternative sentence, as judges describe it, that keep jails from overcrowding. The program allows those who qualify to spend up to 12 hours a day on the outside, working, driving and living almost as if they’re free.
The inmates are allowed to drive off to their jobs and any other sentencing requirements, such as alcohol treatment or counseling sessions, for up to 12 hours per day, five days a week.
Bill Kaufman, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office jail administrator, said the program begins within the courts. Judges will recommend candidates for the program and Kaufman then gives those candidates an application. If suggested candidates meet all of the jail’s criteria, they’re admitted into the program.
Eagle County tried work release around 1985, but the sheriff at the time decided it wasn’t in the county’s best interests to run the program, Kaufman said. The program put a lot of strain on jail personnel and there were problems with inmates bringing in contraband – things like drugs or weapons – he said.
The biggest reason the program is back in Eagle County after a 25-year hiatus is mainly because of overcrowding at the jail. Alternative sentencing options like work release allow judges to fill jails with the more dangerous offenders, while allowing more trustworthy inmates some freedom within their sentences.
“One of the biggest things going around (the country) right now is alternative sentencing,” Kaufman said.
Maher had served time for a sexual assault charge and was on probation following that sentence, said Eagle County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shannon Cordingly.
He violated that probation when he was arrested for driving under the influence, which is how he ended up back in front of Eagle County 5th Judicial District Judge Thomas Moorhead.
Moorhead’s clerk said she couldn’t provide criteria used to deem Maher a candidate for work release because it’s still an open case.
Jon Sarche, spokesman for the Colorado State Court Administrator’s Office, said work release is one possible option in alternatives to prison or jail, however it would never be considered in cases that require mandatory sentences, such as first-degree murder.
The statute doesn’t spell out a list of specific criteria for eligibility, however, so judges have to use their discretion, Sarche said. Judges also work with county jails to know whether the jail’s staff and budgets can handle the work loads associated with work release inmates.
Kaufman said an important point is that those chosen for the program are not incarcerated while awaiting sentencing or being held without bond.
“The majority of people who get work release are people who are out on the street right now,” Kaufman said.
The jail’s work release program might seem like a slap on the wrist in terms of punishment, but there’s more to it than just the perks.
Inmates are required to wear a weekly sweat patch that is sent to a laboratory to test for recreational drugs like marijuana, opiates and amphetamines. Any violations and they’re out.
Kaufman and jail personnel also do random checks at inmates’ jobs, either by phone calls to supervisors or in-person surprise visits. Kaufman found out one work release inmate was working at a different job than he was supposed to be at recently, and that inmate was immediately kicked out of the program.
Work release inmates also get the pleasure of strip searches on a daily basis when they return from their work day. It’s not a cavity search, but jail staff makes inmates strip down naked so they can search for contraband.
“We’re not reaching into their mouths or orifices, but we are doing an inspection of the body,” Kaufman said.
Inmates also receive a daily breath test for alcohol. Any reading other than a zero will get someone thrown out of the program, too.
The program also costs inmates part of their earnings from work. For every day worked, the inmate pays the jail $50. For every day not worked, they pay $25. The sweat patch also runs $40 per week.
“It costs $340 a week to be in this program,” Kaufman said.
Maher is no longer allowed to be in the program after the shooting incident, but Kaufman said he would have been kicked out regardless because he was late that day coming back to the jail.
“Late doesn’t count,” Kaufman said. “Twelve hours is 12 hours.”
The Sheriff’s Office is still learning along the way in terms of what does and doesn’t work for the work release program. Kaufman said it’s a brand new program and officials have tried to make it mirror the strengths found in other programs in neighboring Pitkin and Garfield counties.
Kaufman is hoping to spend some time with Mesa County’s alternative sentencing manager soon to see if he can learn some better practices for Eagle County’s program.
Kaufman likes the program and thinks it could benefit both inmates and the community. “If you treat people like animals, that’s what you return to the street is an animal,” he said. “We try to teach them a little better.”
Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.