Durango City Council voiced early opposition to a jail reform bill moving through the Colorado Legislature.
The bill would change cash bail regulations for misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes and codify arrest standards statewide. But it has sparked a debate within law enforcement about criminal justice reform, leading to divided opinions at the state and local levels – and on City Council.
“This bill puts into law practices that have been being used in other jurisdictions, and by our chief judge in this jurisdiction, to help us manage the population in the jail,” said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith. “I worked on this product with several others, and I think it’s a good bill.”
Bob Brammer, Durango police chief, called the bill “concerning,” and requested City Council consider sending a letter of opposition to the state Legislature.
“We see a lot of promise with this bill in the future, but currently right now, we don’t really understand the effects of (crime levels) and how jail reduction and bond reduction is going to assist us with our efforts as we move toward restorative justice,” Brammer said during Tuesday’s regular City Council meeting.
The bill, called the Jail Population Management Tools, Senate Bill 21-062, prohibits officers from arresting a person based solely on the alleged commission of a traffic offense, petty offense, municipal offense, misdemeanor offense, a class 4, 5 or 6 felony, or a level 3 or 4 drug felony.
Instead, officers would issue a summons or complaint. There are six types of exceptions to the rule, such as enabling officers to make arrests when statutorily required or when a person is believed to be a safety threat or a flight risk.
The bill remains under consideration but has been passed by the Senate Judicial Committee.
“These are crazy things, such as theft,” Brammer said. “We’re not going to be able to take someone into custody for theft up to $100,000. Burglaries, we’re not going to be able arrest people on. Auto theft. The list just goes on and on, though there are some exceptions.”
Supporters, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, say the bill will help address Colorado’s overpopulated jails by releasing people before their trial. They say 60% of people in jail have not been convicted and are only jailed because they cannot afford to pay bail.
The trend disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous and Latino populations, people with disabilities and those with mental illnesses. Many Colorado counties already have similar restrictions, supporters say.
“We rely on jails to house people that simply do not belong there – people experiencing homelessness, folks in a mental health crisis or (who) suffer from substance use. This bill merely upholds the democratic principle that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” said Denise Maes, who works on public policy for the ACLU. “Housing more and more people in jail has not made us any safer. We need a different way.”
Smith, who helped negotiate terms of the bill for the County Sheriffs of Colorado, recounted times when the La Plata County Jail has been overcrowded. Different counties have different arrest standards, and the bill would codify them across the state. In all, he believed law enforcement concerns have been addressed for the Sheriff’s Office, he said.
“Working with the ACLU, addressing these concerns, codifying arrest standards into law, it became a good product for the office of sheriff and the management of the jail,” Smith said.
Opponents want to “kill” the bill while it is being reviewed by legislative committees. They say similar restrictions were enacted at the start of the pandemic, but crime still increased both statewide and in Durango.
Smith said it is too soon to show that depopulation of jails caused the increase in crime, particularly when there were other societal factors to consider such as increased unemployment.
Brammer said the state police chiefs’ association was not at the table to negotiate the terms of the bill. The association could consider it only after it had been written. He also said Durango already has arrest standards and balked at the limits placed on officer discretion.
“If a blanket policy says the only thing we can arrest for is a felony one, two or three and for statutory requirement, it’s going to hinder our ability greatly to safeguard this city against violent acts or any criminal act,” he said.
Brammer highlighted the almost unanimous opposition to the bill from the heads of law enforcement in Montezuma, La Plata and Archuleta counties, alongside opposition from the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.
City Councilor Barbara Noseworthy said the city needed to take a more balanced approach and hear from supporters of the bill before making a decision. Those supporters include Smith, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and about 50 organizations statewide.
Mayor Pro Tem Kim Baxter was struck by the division within the law enforcement community.
“The Legislature has done a very poor job of attempting to write a piece of legislation that is embraced by the people who are supposed to be following it. That concerns me,” she said. “It feels almost partisan to me in this whole situation.”
Councilor Chris Bettin and Mayor Dean Brookie supported taking an opposing stance.
“Our police chief is telling us he is in agreement with incarceration rates going down ... but the timing is wrong and this bill is a little too boilerplate,” Bettin said. “I think we need to listen to that.”
The council voted 4-1 to oppose the current bill but to encourage legislators to go back to the drawing board and come up with a jail population reform bill that addresses law enforcement concerns. Noseworthy voted against making an opposition statement without more information.
“It’s not the right legislation that creates better law enforcement in our city,” Brookie said. “From that standpoint, I’d send it back and ask them to rework it.”