Lemon Line: Jail an accident waiting to happen | VailDaily.com

Lemon Line: Jail an accident waiting to happen

Heather Lemon
Vail CO, Colorado

“Released drunk kills teen”

The headline shocked me. “Eagle County Sheriff’s Department admitted that they had no room to detain Trashed Inebrio, and allowed him to be driven away by a friend. Inebrio then borrowed his friend’s car and struck a teen on her way home from work.”

No, it has not occurred . . . yet. I made the story up. But the overcrowding at the Eagle County Justice Center is an accident waiting to happen.

According to the judges at the Eagle County Justice Center, between 35 and 50 people a day are on ankle monitors who would otherwise be detained, or in work release if that was available. We do not know how many are just issued summons and allowed to walk. Currently the county will spend $225,000 in 2007 in “housed-out” costs, paying other counties to house our inmates. On average, 14 inmates per day are shifted to other detention facilities. Usually these are inmates who have been convicted and will serve out their sentences in these out-sourced facilities. The current capacity of the jail is 62 general-population beds and 10 holding-cell beds. That means that the jail would need to be doubled in capacity to meet current and short-term future needs.

Somehow, 22 years of supposed balance-sheet depreciation and careful reserves (if the county commissioners actually planned beyond their pet projects) does not exist. The Justice Center is hopelessly overcrowded, the court dockets continuously delayed, and charged defendants who should be held are released, causing serious public-safety concerns. We have more judges than courtrooms, more district attorneys than desks, and more inmates than the jail can hold. Regardless of your political persuasion, public safety is one of the most fundamental, if not the most fundamental, job of government.

Participate in The Longevity Project

The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.

And so we the taxpayer are now faced with funding a $50-million project that could have, and should have been planned from the beginning. The needs at the Justice Center cannot be a surprise. The crime rate is stable, if not decreasing. There has not been a rash of criminal elements invading the county and overwhelming our limited law enforcement resources. The simple fact is that the county’s population has more than tripled since the center was built, and therefore, the public safety needs have increased accordingly.

The problem is that it would be difficult to piece-meal the project. If you expand the jail without addressing the courtrooms and the district attorney’s facilities, the bottleneck on the court side will continue to exacerbate the delays and processing. If the court side is expanded (an estimated $20 million project on its own), it will absolutely inundate the jail, and the county will incur higher and higher “housing-out” costs.

So what do we do now? No amount of finger-pointing, blame-laden blathering will solve the problem. A private survey indicates that a special sales tax/bond issue will not be passed by the Eagle County voters. The commissioners plan a campaign to increase the voter’s awareness of the issue. Presumably they will then try to convince the public that we need to raise taxes to pay for the jail. We know we need a new jail. We just do not like the idea of funding our government’s excesses for less essential services.

Essentially, we need to re-examine the county budget, rank the order of the services currently being provided, and evaluate what services could be funded through public/private partnerships to free up cash to implement the desperately need expansion of the Justice Center.

The county budget is usually approved in the first week, or first commissioner’s meeting in December. Public comment is sought during November so we have no excuse if we do not actively involve ourselves in this process. I, frankly, can think of nothing more boring for me than analyzing budgets, and reviewing department revenue/expenditure reports. But it must be done.

Without public input, or limited, one-sided charades of alleged outcry, the commissioners will not have a true sense of the depth of community concern. It is our choice ” work out tough solutions or accept higher taxes.

Heather Lemon of Eagle-Vail writes a biweekly column for the Vail Daily. She can be reached at lemonvail@aol.com.

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