Photo attribution: Diggins from Denver website
On February 17, 2022, Lisa Pope and Rob Squire of UpDoNA’s Safety & Quality of Life Committee met with Sheriff Elias Diggins. Evan Dreyer, Mayor Hancock’s Deputy Chief of Staff, was also in attendance. The Sheriff’s department operates the City Jail and the County Jail, along with the Vehicle Impound Facility.
There is a perception that Denver’s jail populations are significantly below capacity, and that capacity is being kept low due to COVID limitations as well as limitations due to an understaffing. We asked Sheriff Diggins if that is true. It turned out not to be entirely correct. Between the two jails, the total prisoner capacity is 2,330, and prior to COVID, the jail population was near that number. When COVID hit, the CDC recommended that all jails reduce their population so that social distancing procedures could be put into place. In early 2020, the jail population was reduced to 950 prisoners, but today the number of prisoners is back up to 1,653. Sheriff Diggins indicated that all jails work to maintain 80% of full capacity so that deputies can ensure that prisoners are compatible and have similar behaviors. For example, they try to house people with drug addiction together since they have similar treatment programs. Since 80% of full capacity is 1,864, the jail is now within 211 of that target level.
Sheriff Department Staffing
Like the Denver Police Department, the Sheriff’s Department has staffing issues. Full strength for the Sheriff’s Department is 874 officers, and their current level is 630 or only 72% of full strength. Sheriff Diggins said that it is not affecting their performance because they are covering the deficit with overtime.
Denver’s Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) Program
Sheriff Diggins confirmed that drug abuse is common among the segment of the homeless population that chooses to continue to live on the street. Because of that, we wanted to talk with the Sheriff about a Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) program that we are aware of in the State of Rhode Island. Their program provides three different types of medications to help get addicts off hard drugs. They have experienced a 93% success rate in keeping people off hard drugs after release from prison. He indicated that Denver’s jails do operate a MAT program, and that program will be expanded as a part of Mayor Hancock’s recently-announced Public Safety Action Plan. He gave us the name of the doctor that runs Denver’s program, and we will be setting up a meeting in the future to get more information. A big impediment to the ultimate success of the program is loss of Medicaid benefits. When someone is incarcerated, they lose their Medicaid benefits, and don’t get them back until 30 days after they are released. This includes all medications whether for drug addiction or for health conditions. The drug addiction medications are expensive, and when someone is released, they often can’t afford to purchase them. A bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives called HR955 – Medicaid Reentry Act of 2021. It has bipartisan support and is intended to correct this situation.
Personal Recognizance Bonds
We discussed the use of Personal Recognizance Bonds, which has been blamed for repeat offenders being released from jail and failing to appear for their court date. The purpose of a bond is to provide a financial incentive for the person to appear for his court appearance, and the current widespread use of PR bonds removes that financial incentive. He provided the bond schedule that his department uses, and the link is shown below.
We will follow up with Sheriff Diggins as needed in the future.