The Boulder County Jail has reached full capacity for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
About 412 people are currently incarcerated or detained in the 543-bed facility off Airport Road, according to the most recently available state data. That’s the most since Jan. 1, 2020. (The sheriff keeps some beds empty for safety reasons.)
The numbers are rising in part because police are arresting people again for more minor charges. For much of the pandemic, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle prohibited police from jailing people for low-level crimes in order to drive down the jail population and prevent coronavirus outbreaks.
On July 5, 2022, with cases trending down in the county and a growing acceptance that Covid is here to stay, Pelle signed off on new incarceration standards that removed restrictions on detaining people.
People who were issued multiple summons in the past two years, but who never showed up to court, are now being arrested and booked into jail.
“Because of the backlog in the system, we’re going to be catching up for a while,” Pelle said in an interview.
Some are showing up to the jail with a dozen warrants for their arrest, often for minor offenses, such as stealing a sandwich at the Circle K, he said.
“We’ve always de-emphasized the use of jail for minor crimes,” Pelle said. “But we also understand, eventually, there has to be accountability and some consequences if people are just going to ignore a summons to court. So we’re providing that accountability once again.”
Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said the pandemic’s temporary arrest standards and suspension of jury trials will have ripple effects.
“With the justice system returning to full capacity, there is a lot of work being done to address the increase in crime,” Dougherty said in an email. “Once again, police officers, prosecutors, and judges can make decisions and take appropriate action without the limitations imposed by the pandemic.”
Policies to reduce number of people in jail remain
For minor municipal code violations — such as sleeping in public spaces and trespassing — defendants must have at least three arrest warrants before being incarcerated, according to the sheriff’s new incarceration standards. This policy is intended to reserve limited bed space for people with more serious charges.
And people booked into the jail with multiple municipal charges may still be eligible to be released in a matter of hours. That’s partially due to a 2019 state bail reform law that abolishes cash bonds for many nonviolent crimes, allowing people to be released as their cases move through the courts. The law was designed to change a bail system that disproportionately punishes the poor.
Separately, in March 2020, Boulder Municipal Court Presiding Judge Linda Cooke issued an order to release from jail more people sooner on “personal recognizance bonds.” These bonds amount to a promise to show up to court, rather than pay a cash bond.
As reports of crime in Boulder and across the county rise, the leniency has frustrated some members of the community, businesses and the Boulder Police Department. Police Chief Maris Herold has cited the jail’s policies when responding to residents concerned about crime.
“Police take them [to the county jail] and they go right back out. And it could be months before this person is seen in front of a court. So these are complications of the whole criminal justice system,” Herold said during a town hall in May 2022. “The police are just one part of that criminal justice system. And I think that we’re doing the best that we can.”
Pelle said he understands the frustration. He has spoken to the city’s bike shop owners, who are dealing with bike thefts. But Pelle said he needs the bed space for people held on more serious charges, such as murder. It costs about $200 per day to detain someone in jail.
“We have people sleeping on the floor of the gym right now. It’s very crowded,” he said. “If we have people taking up bed space for shoplifting or trespassing, that’s not a wise use of resources and wouldn’t be very prudent on anybody’s part.”
Pelle, who is retiring as sheriff this year, said jailing people for minor crimes won’t necessarily prevent such crimes from happening again.
“Putting people in jail does nothing to change their mental health status, or their experience with homelessness, or their need to eat,” he said. “So there has to be a bigger conversation, because we’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem.”
Update: This story was updated at 10:20 a.m. on Aug. 26 with additional information about bed space at the jail and a comment from District Attorney Michael Dougherty.