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Jail-job program: Nowhere to go 

When El Paso County financed work on the Criminal Justice Center, a remodel of the county courthouse and other projects in 2007, says county spokesperson Dave Rose, it included an about $2.5 million renovation of the sheriff's downtown Metro lockup.

Commissioner Dennis Hisey says now that the idea was to lock in a low interest rate while securing funding for needed construction. Hisey remembers it as "out-of-the-box thinking."

The goal for the downtown facility, according to media reports, was to open up 375 beds for low-level offenders, who could pay $22 a day to avoid doing their time at CJC. Instead, they'd live in a dorm-like setting, free to go to their jobs and returning to custody while they weren't working.

Their payments would cover the money needed to fund the program. Better yet, additional money — and there would be extra, even up to $2 million extra, according to reports — would be allocated to cover entire payments on the refinanced certificate of participation.

It hasn't worked out that way.

According to Lt. Lari Sevene, the public information officer for the Sheriff's Office, about 175 inmates have to be participating in the program to generate enough money to cover the entire bond payment. Prior to 2009, the average was 200, with highs of 300. But since then, Sevene says, the program has averaged 110 inmates.

That means a total haul of a little over a million dollars a year, she says, when it costs $547,000 to run the program. So only about $450,000 goes back into the county's coffers.

No one is certain why the work-release program isn't thriving, but according to Sevene, sheriff's personnel believe it's due to the poor economy. Work-release is a sentencing option, but in order to be considered for the work-release program, you need to be employed.

"The judges say that it is up to the district attorney to suggest work release as an option, and they don't always do that," Sevene says. "The district attorney then says, we try to put it on the table as an option, and then the defense attorneys say that that is not a viable option for their clients, because they don't have access to work at this point in time.

"It's one of those things where people are standing pointing their fingers at each other," she says.

The district attorney's office did not return multiple calls for an interview.

Unemployment numbers for El Paso County appear to correlate with Sevene's estimation. In 2008, the unemployment rate was 5.7 percent. A year later, the rate had jumped to 8.3 percent. In 2010, the rate was 8.85 percent.

Hisey agrees that the economy is the likely culprit.

"It's not uncommon for it to be the folks who work in the restaurants and kitchens, and a lot of those jobs have gone away," he says. "The economy has been a part of it."

According to Hisey, commissioners get a daily report on how many people are being held in jail wards. Lately, he says, the numbers in work-release are "trending toward the 108 range."

But he emphasizes that the program still generates plenty of money to cover the $547,000 it costs.

"It has always more than met [the Sheriff's] needs," Hisey says. "And it has always contributed some, but not as much as we hoped."

chet@csindy.com

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