Douglas County’s jail bond system due for change, criminal justice council leader says

Program could release 50-70 inmates, but county says not enough to delay expansion

Douglas County Jail

Robert Bieniecki doesn’t think Douglas County’s current jail bond system makes sense.

In many cases, those in the county jail bond out based not on the severity of their crime but on how much money they have, said Bieniecki, the coordinator of the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

“You may have a rapist buy his way out of jail, and a person in jail for a relatively minor offense remains in jail,” he said. “What’s the logic in that?”

Robert Bieniecki

In an effort benefitting from the expertise of consultant Dr. Allen Beck, the county is exploring a way to bring some logic — and some would say fairness — to the bond system. The proposed reforms, when fully developed, would have the added bonus of potentially reducing the overcrowded Douglas County Jail’s population by 50 to 70 inmates.

Known as the pretrial release program, the reform would expand the use of own-recognizance bonds, which don’t require inmates to post cash for their release, Bieniecki said. It would make use of the electronic monitoring program the county is now exploring, but also direct monitoring and supervision of inmates who are released without the devices.

“It’s improving the current bond provision program that’s been in place for a couple of years,” he said. “It’s an evidence-based practice that’s based a lot on what Colorado is doing statewide, as well as other states.”

The program was developed with consultation of the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office, the county defense bar, Douglas County District Court Services and other stakeholders, Bieniecki said. They will continue to be informed before the program is presented to district court judges in mid-March.

“We want to make it as final as we can before we take it to them,” he said. “This is a judges’ program. They have to approve it. Chief Judge Peggy Kittel will make the decision.”

Ranking inmates

Currently, a pretrial monitoring officer from Douglas County Court Services goes daily to the county jail to collect a list of newly incarcerated inmates. Bieniecki said that monitoring officer would be asked to assess inmates for participation in the program.

“There are two main issues we are trying to address before we put somebody in the program,” he said. “Those are an inmate’s risk of public safety and risk of failure to appear. Those are the two goals to get the appropriate people on pretrial release.”

The assessment tool assigns inmates a score based on such things as their offense, criminal history and employment, Bieniecki said. Some inmates will fail to qualify because they are deemed too big a risk, while others will be excluded because they are not Douglas County residents.

The score also will determine the level of supervision each released inmate requires, Bieniecki said.

“The program sets up different levels of supervision, depending on how they fall out in a number on our assessment tools,” he said. “It may be minimal supervision, which would require just a phone call to the monitoring officer, to all the way up to what looks like house arrest and places in between.”

In terms of the types of inmates who might be eligible for the program, Bieniecki has one idea already: People in jail because they missed a court date. Numbers show a significant number of the jail’s inmates are incarcerated for “failure to appear” charges. During a recent daily jail census, 86 of 235 inmates, or 14 percent, were incarcerated for failure to appear. Of those, 34 were in jail solely for failure to appear, while 52 others were there for failure to appear in combination with another offense.

There is the potential the pretrial release program could not only reduce the current number of failure to appear incarcerations but carve into the number of those arrested in the future through its monitoring provisions, Bieniecki said.

“That has been the experience of other jurisdictions,” he said.

The program does come with costs, Bieniecki said.

“When the program gets up to 50, we will be asking for one full-time monitor and one part-time surveillance officer,” he said.

Exact personnel costs won’t be known until the program gets underway. For example, less staff would be needed if a large majority of those in the program only require phone call monitoring, as opposed to more intensive supervision.

Whatever the staffing cost, the program would be “infinitely cheaper” than the expense of incarcerating 50 to 70 inmates, Bieniecki said. It would also lessen the societal costs of lost wages or jobs, family stress and other consequences of incarceration.

“Research shows just three days in jail increases the odds of a future incarceration,” Bieniecki said.

The program, though, won’t be able to help inmates who are serving time after a conviction. The recent jail census indicated 50 inmates or 22 percent of the population were post-trial inmates, Bieniecki said. But even though they wouldn’t be part of the program, they might still benefit indirectly. That’s because many of those inmates are serving their time in the jails of other counties as part of a program Douglas County is using to alleviate crowding issues at the Douglas County Jail.

The pretrial release program would allow many of the farmed-out inmates to return to the Douglas County Jail and take advantage of its nationally recognized re-entry program, Bieniecki said.

Expansion issue

One thing the pretrial release program won’t do is reduce Douglas County Jail’s population to a low enough number to make unnecessary the proposed $30 million jail expansion, Bieniecki said.

Douglas County Commission Chair Mike Gaughan said that although expanded pretrial release and other best practices the ongoing Criminal Justice Coordinating Council was exploring were promising, they would not resolve the jail’s capacity issue. The program also wouldn’t change the needs reflected in conceptual plans released last year for the $30 million, 120-bed jail expansion. The plans would build new pods for mentally ill inmates, minimum-security inmates, the classification of newly incarcerated inmates and the re-entry program.

“Although the implementation of the pretrial program may affect daily populations, it doesn’t address the structural problems from changing populations,” Gaughan said. “We still have a facility designed for the populations anticipated for the 1990s. We have to look at the present and future population and design a facility that works and is safe for inmates and the staff.”