The Alamosa County Detention Center is grappling with rising costs as its inmate population rises. Sheriff Dave Stong and other county officials are continuing to explore possible solutions to the problem.
Courier staff writer
ALAMOSA — Colorado’s overall crime rate is lower now than it has been at any point since the mid-1960s, yet local prosecutors and law enforcement agents say that crime in the San Luis Valley is actually increasing.
So even as state prisons and private correctional facilities close their doors, Alamosa County Sheriff Dave Stong is trying to make room for more and more inmates at his facility. But that’s proving to be a costly undertaking.
In 2012, the county’s public safety expenses rose by $381,872, to just under $3.3 million — a 13.08 percent increase over 2011 levels.
Part of the increase can be tied to a high employee turnover rate at the sheriff’s office. But Stong’s department is also spending more money to deal with a steadily rising inmate population.
On any given day now, the Alamosa County Detention Center houses about 90 detainees, and it’s farming another 30 inmates on average out to jails in Conejos, Costilla, Chaffee and Bent counties.
It might sound counterintuitive, but according to Stong, it’s actually cheaper to send those people to other facilities at a daily cost of $40 per inmate.
“They’ve kind of given us a cut-rate deal,” he says.
In comparison, Stong estimates that it costs about $63.53 to house one inmate at the Alamosa County Detention Center for a single 24-hour period.
That’s mainly because the county is spending more money on utilities, maintenance costs and other expenses at the aging facility, he says.
The jail, which opened in 1986, was originally designed to house 50 inmates, based on federal standards that require 25 square feet of unencumbered space per inmate.
Since then, however, the facility expanded by another 36 bunks, and as of last month, the jail was diverting its remaining overflow of inmates to cots and even mats on the floor.
With space at a premium, Stong is now exploring the possibility of converting all of the jail’s beds into triple bunks, which would allow it to house up to 120 inmates on site.
He estimates that the bunk expansion itself could cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $42,000. However, he says there’s no question that his office would have to hire more employees to watch over those additional beds.
The proposal is neither a last resort nor a first step toward addressing the issue.
Stong and other county officials have already implemented numerous measures to reduce overcrowding and the associated costs that come with more inmates.
For one thing, the jail no longer locks up people who are arrested for misdemeanor offenses or drunk driving incidents.
There may be rare exceptions if a court convicts someone of a misdemeanor and then orders that person to serve time in the facility. But as a rule, someone who goes down to a local hardware store and steals $999.99 in supplies won’t go to jail, Stong says.
The jail is also releasing “low-risk” inmates to private probation and intensive home supervision, which eliminates the county’s obligations to feed and house those people.
“That’s taken a lot of folks out of the facility that would normally be here, but our numbers just continue to climb,” Stong says.
The problem, he says, is that many other inmates accused of serious felony offenses simply don’t meet the criteria in order to be eligible for pre-trial tracking programs, and he doesn’t believe it’s feasible to reduce their numbers.
“The only thing we could possibly do would be to lower the criteria,” he says. “I don’t want to do that.”
Stong can’t offer an easy explanation as to why his facility’s numbers are up, while the state prison population fell by about one third between 2002 and 2011.
In some cases, judges may be ordering defendants to serve time in county jails, instead of sentencing them to the Colorado Department of Corrections system, he says.
When that happens, Stong says the jail has no choice but to follow the court’s orders.
Alamosa County Sheriff’s Lt. Jim McCloskey says that out-of-area residents who are sentenced to Community Corrections also wind up in the county jail after they commit felonies here.
“It’s a heavy cost burden to the county,” he says.
Likewise, Alamosa County Commissioner Marianne Dunne believes that criminals from neighboring communities also come to the Valley’s commercial and retail hub to commit their crimes.
Stong acknowledges that is a problem.
“Yes, that does happen,” he says.
The bottom line, however, is that the sheriff’s office is responding to more calls, which, in turn, lead to more arrests.
Up until this spring, county dispatchers had been averaging about 800 to 900 service calls each month. In May, however, they fielded nearly 1,200 calls.
Stong has a ready answer when he’s asked if there’s anything that could help his department deal with its rising costs.
“It comes down to dollars and cents — it’s really simple,” he says.
But the process of finding that money is anything but simple.
“Dollars are tight all over,” he says.
Even if the county found a funding source to pay for a bigger building, it still has to consider the additional costs it would incur to staff and maintain the facility over the long term.
“That’s what’s been stopping us up to this point,” Stong says.
At least one state lawmaker is vowing to help the county, along with other communities that are struggling with similar problems.
Rep. Ed Vigil, D-San Luis, told Alamosa County commissioners last month that he plans to work with others on a possible solution between now and the next legislative session.
Vigil did not specify what he’d like to see in the bill, except to say that he wants a comprehensive proposal that is equitable to counties.
“I know that it’s a costly endeavor for counties, as a former county commissioner,” he said June 12.