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TCL > April 2005 Issue > Election on New Denver Justice Center Is May 3, 2005: Here is a Pro/Con

April 2005       Vol. 34, No. 4       Page  29

Election on New Denver Justice Center Is May 3, 2005: Here is a Pro/Con
by Frances Koncilja, Phil Cherner, Christie Donner

Editor’s Note: The Denver Bar Association has taken a position supporting this proposal; the Colorado Bar Association has taken no position.

Frances Koncilja is president of Koncilja & Associates P.C., a former President of the Colorado Bar Association, and a member of the Denver Justice Center Task Force—(303) 675-0900 or

Denver Needs a New Justice Center

by Frances Koncilja

The first time I ever saw a prisoner shackled was thirty years ago in the Denver City and County Building when I was a young public defender. I was shocked. The first time I ever saw prisoners being unloaded by uniformed sheriff’s deputies with shotguns pumped and held over their heads was in the parking lot outside of the Denver City and County Building thirty years ago. I was shocked. Thirty years ago, I thought those things happened only on movie sets.

It is thirty years later and prisoners in Denver are still being led to court in shackles past jurors, witnesses, and City and County of Denver ("City") employees. Prisoners are still being unloaded in downtown Denver by uniformed sheriff’s deputies with shotguns pumped and held over their heads less than twenty feet from the public street.

Mayor John Hickenlooper has developed a plan for new jails and criminal courts. It is a courageous, ambitious, and well-thought-out plan. It has the support of its immediate neighborhood, the Golden Triangle. On May 3, 2005, Denver voters will have the opportunity to approve or reject this bond issue. There will be no new taxes because this debt will replace existing debt as it is retired. As part of the process, the Mayor also has committed additional funds to diversion projects.

As lawyers who are committed to an efficient and safe justice system, we have an obligation to support this project. This article summarizes the need and why this plan is the right solution at the right place and at the right time.

Current Facilities are Overwhelmed

Denver has two jails—the Police Administration Detention Facility ("PADF"), located across from the Denver courthouse, and the larger facility at Smith Road. There has been overcrowding in both of these facilities since 1991. In 2001, the jail relinquished its accreditation from the American Correctional Association because the accreditation would have been revoked. Under the current conditions, Denver has no ability to re-obtain that accreditation.

PADF is rated for 158 inmates, but houses an average of 206 prisoners. At peak times, it is above capacity at 172 percent. Smith Road is rated for 1,512 inmates, but houses an average of 1,871 inmates. At peak times, it is above capacity at 132 percent. There are currently 22 criminal courts and 8 juvenile courts in Denver. They handle an annual average 3,435 cases and 1,501 per courtroom, respectively.

Recommendation of
Urban Land Institute

Before Mayor Hickenlooper took office, the voters had rejected a new jail facility at I-25 and Sixth Avenue. Mayor Hickenlooper then began a process of analysis and community involvement. He invited the Urban Land Institute ("ULI") to study the issue and make recommendations. The ULI panel concluded that the current justice system in Denver had deteriorated to an appalling level:

Continued neglect will place courthouse visitors and jurors in danger and threaten the constitutional rights of accused perpetrators, both adult and juvenile. Denver’s horribly overcrowded jail conditions currently serve to harden the attitude of those incarcerated, thus negating the very concept of correction. The PADF’s cells are routinely double bunked; this facility, designed for 17,000 persons annually, now handles about 44,000 persons. . . .

The situation is equally deficient for the district and county courts. The City has to lease space to overcome the shortage of courtrooms. The separation of potentially dangerous prisoners from the public, judicial staff, and victims is not possible, owing to inadequate space. Holding cells are located directly across from the City Council’s chambers; hallways are shared by prisoners and the public alike.

ULI recommended that new facilities be built on the Rocky Mountain News building site and that the City should acquire the adjacent block. They concluded that this plan would drastically reduce detainee transport and result in efficiencies, as well as increased safety. They also concluded that a new Justice Center in downtown had the potential for increasing additional private development and economic growth. A criminal justice system could be a good neighbor in a growing area that has a strong heritage of housing and government functions.

Work of Justice Center Task Force

In October 2004, Mayor Hickenlooper appointed the Denver Justice Center Task Force, comprised of forty-eight members in the community. The Task Force was assigned to three subcommittees: Program, Finance, and Design and Construction. Hubert Farbes and I co-chaired the Design and Construction subcommittee. Each member was given the opportunity to take a tour of the current facilities. Everyone who attended a tour was appalled at the current conditions. The Task Force concluded that the system of detention was overwhelmed. A tragedy has been avoided only because of the hard work of the Sheriff’s Department.

The transportation of prisoners, intermingling of prisoners, city employees, jurors, and the public is a disaster waiting to happen. The current Denver courts system presents unacceptably crowded and dangerous working conditions for many county and juvenile judges and their staff, which require immediate attention. The Task Force concluded that a new facility that addressed these needs must be built as soon as possible and that the Rocky Mountain News building site, as proposed by the ULI, would lead to operational efficiencies and cost savings.

Proposed Project

The current proposal, which will go before the Denver voters on May 3, 2005, includes:

• A new downtown courthouse with thirty-five courtrooms to house district and county criminal courts and juvenile courts

• A new downtown detention center with 1,500 beds and two arraignment courtrooms

• A separate parking structure with 451 public parking spaces

• Close of Smith Road buildings 6 through 12 and erection of a new building that would house 384 inmates.

• Move of the civil courts from leased space in the Adams Mark to the City and County Building

• A total expenditure not to exceed $378 million

• Conformance of the Justice Center to and as part of the design guidelines of the Civic Center District Plan and certify as a "green" building with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ("LEED"), defined as "a voluntary consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance sustainable buildings."

Your Support is Critical

This is a proposal that every lawyer has an interest in seeing passed. Please discuss it with your friends, business associates, family, and neighbors and ask them to vote "yes" in the election on May 3, 2005. If you are interested in helping the campaign with either a financial contribution or other work, please contact me at (303) 675-0900 or via e-mail at

Philip Cherner, Denver, is a sole practitioner whose practice emphasizes criminal defense and attorney grievance defense—(303) 860-7686,, or Christie Donner is the Executive Director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition— Both authors served on the Alternatives Subcommittee of the Justice Center Task Force.

Fail The Jail

by Philip Cherner and Christine Donner

On May 3, 2005, Denver voters will be asked to approve Measure 1A, the proposed $378 million ($600 million after interest and inflation) "Justice Center" project. A project of this scope and cost should be clearly needed and tightly budgeted. Measure 1A fails both tests. The planning was done without adequate criminal justice policy analysis or court management assessment, both of which might have detailed how many jail beds Denver needs. Instead, the city has proceeded on the assumption that it needs to nearly double jail capacity.

Measure Based on Inadequate Analysis

Having decided to build a new jail/justice center, Mayor Hickenlooper created a Justice Center Task Force to review details. Its Finance Committee focused on determining the maximum bond amount the City and County of Denver ("City") could finance at the current property tax rate ($600 million) and offered several financing scenarios. At current property tax rates, the City would be able to fund $450 million in future construction projects over the next twenty years. The Finance Committee didn’t evaluate what future construction needs might be (for example, schools, infrastructure, roads, and parks), so this project was not considered in context. It also failed to consider the increase in operating costs triggered by a larger facility.

Experience has shown that the cost of building a new prison, amortized over thirty years, is only 5 percent of the total cost of operating the building. It is customary for large bond initiatives to have a mill levy increase put before voters to fund operation expenses—but not with Measure 1A. Portland, Oregon, recently built a $58 million jail that sits empty because there is no revenue to operate it.

The Task Force also failed to properly consider the need for a new facility. Colorado’s Department of Corrections ("DOC") provides an example of the inability to build enough cells to meet the "need." Since 1987, the state has spent approximately $800 million building prisons and more than $5 billion to operate them. The annual operating budget for the DOC has increased from $78 million in 1987 to more than $500 million today (a fourfold increase after inflation).

Current projections indicate Colorado still is short hundreds of beds. The state didn’t raise taxes to fund the increase in prison operations, but instead cut other programs. Colorado is 46th in the nation in funding K-12 education, 49th in funding substance abuse and mental health services, and the state universities are on the road to complete privatization. The City should learn from this experience by asking, first, how many beds do we really need, and only thereafter planning the facility. Unfortunately, Measure 1A instead lets perceived bed needs drive policy.

Only after it was determined that a 1,500-bed downtown facility would be built were attempts made to conduct this analysis. The Task Force’s Alternatives Subcommittee was instructed to make recommendations for ways to slow the growth in the jail population. The City provided little statistical or policy data, and it wasn’t until December 2004 that the City contracted with the National Institute of Corrections to conduct a mini-evaluation. The final report still has not been completed. Thus, even after the Alternatives Subcommittee came up with a number of recommendations that would relieve overcrowding, City officials did not reevaluate the size of the proposed downtown jail.

Actual Needs of the Prison Population

Proponents have failed to differentiate between the need for a larger jail and the need for an upgraded jail. Clearly, both the county and city jails are overcrowded. The solution offered by Measure 1A simply is to expand current facilities and build a new jail. However, readers need to recall that the jail population comprises largely pretrial (that is, unconvicted) detainees and sentenced misdemeanants. Convicted felons are housed at the county jail only for a few days after sentencing and then are moved to a state facility.

• As of October 13, 2004, 66 percent of those in the county jail were pretrial detainees who could not afford to make bond, and 19 percent were those convicted of a misdemeanor who were serving a sentence of ten days or less, for a total of 85 percent of the current county jail population.

• Over the past ten years, the average annual growth rate of the county jail population has been 1.5 percent, which translates into an increase in the average daily population of twenty-seven people per year.

Alternative Solutions for Less Money

Several strategies could be implemented immediately that would significantly reduce overcrowding at the jails. The Alternatives Subcommittee has made several recommendations that already have been approved by criminal justice stakeholders:

1) bring back the pretrial supervision program for eligible drug offenders that was eliminated with the dismantling of drug court, diverting from 1,000 to 1,200 pretrial detainees from jail each year and saving nearly $2.5 million in jail operating costs;

2) increase utilization of the Electronic Monitoring Program for another 200 pretrial detainees;

3) increase utilization of the Sheriff’s Home Detention Program to capacity (740 people per year);

4) after serving 75 percent of their sentence, transition those sentenced to a misdemeanor to home detention with electronic monitoring; and

5) expand the Crisis Intervention Team to divert 250 additional offenders with mental illness into treatment, rather than jail.

None of these recommendations has been implemented. The Denver Police Department also is considering circumstances under which police officers can issue a summons instead of arresting someone. This would reduce the overcrowding at the city jail and is done in almost every other Colorado county.

In addition to the jail expansion, Measure 1A would construct a new courthouse that would expand the number of and relocate all of the adult and juvenile criminal courts. The City and County Building would continue to house the other courtrooms and city-related offices. Alternative strategies include:

• Immediately implement the recommendations of the Alternatives Subcommittee.

• Stop housing prisoners from other jurisdictions.

• Conduct a thorough criminal justice analysis and court management assessment to comprehensively determine additional efficiencies and projected jail bed needs for the next five to ten years.

• Spend $25 million to fix the county jail.

• Convert the City and County Building for exclusive use as a courthouse and consider moving city offices to space in the virtually empty Courthouse Annex, vacant permits center, and unused space in the new Webb building.

Vote "No" on Measure 1A—Denver Can Do Better

The strategies described in this article would address all of the concerns raised by proponents of Measure 1A. The overcrowding at the county jail would be immediately addressed (instead of waiting four years for the downtown jail be completed) and the older, objectionable units at the county jail would be replaced.

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