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Lawmakers to consider relief bills for crowded jails

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Colorado lawmakers will debate a series of new bills aimed at relieving overcrowded county jails Colorado lawmakers will debate a series of new bills aimed at relieving overcrowded county jails
PUEBLO -

State lawmakers will debate a package of new spending bills in the upcoming legislative session that could provide some relief to overcrowded county jails around the state. A bipartisan committee met over the summer to study jail crowding and drafted the bills in hopes of addressing urgent needs.

Committee Chair Senator Don Coram of Montrose County said he and his fellow lawmakers recognize that overcrowded jails are a liability.

"When these situations do get out of control, not only is it that the inmates can be hurt, the people, the caretakers the guards that are looking after them are also put it undo risk," Coram said.

The first bill in the package, Bill A, would put $30 million a year into new grants and loans for jail renovation and construction. It's a funding source that Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor said would be extremely helpful in his efforts to build a new jail.

"Had we been able to pass this jail initiative back in November, and if this bill goes thru, Bill A. that would've given us a funding stream to go to to actually fiance our jail," Taylor said.

The second bill, Bill B, doubles the current reimbursement rate paid by the Colorado Department of Corrections for housing state prisoners in county jails. Pueblo doesn't have any room for them, but El Paso County does. Janet Huffor, the Chief of Staff and Legislative Liaison for the El Paso County Sheriffs Office said the current rate of $54 per day doesn't cover what it costs local taxpayers to house them.

"It does cost almost up to $100 a day to house an inmate," Huffor said. "So, we have not really been able to recoup any of those actual costs"
Bill C would increase state spending on teleconference and video conference technology to connect courts and jails in an attempt to reduce transportation costs.

Spending bills have historically faced a difficult path to success in the state legislatures. However, Sen Coram believes that there will be the political and financial support necessary to get the bills passed.

"We've had some good news recently that our budge projections are better than anticipated. So, I'm very optimistic that the funds are going to be there."

The biggest financial burden at any jail is health care. Huffor and Taylor both agreed that jails are increasingly becoming the social safety net in many Colorado communities. Yet pretrial inmates who have not been convicted lose their federal health benefits once they're arrested.

"If somebody is on Medicare or Medicaid when they come into a facility and they been in our facility for 24 hours, those benefits stop," Huffor explained.

Congress imposed that restriction, known as the Medical Inmate Exclusion Program, back in the 1960's. Huffor said the result is a disruption in care for the criminally accused and a shifting of the financial burden for their care to local counties. Last year in El Paso County, jail healthcare costs alone topped $6 million.

This package of legislation includes a measure asking Congress to amend the Medicaid law and allow pre-trial detainees to keep their benefits. 
Sheriff Taylor said about one in three inmates in Pueblo suffer from either substance abuse, mental health disorders, or both. However, local providers won't treat their patients at the jail to care because Medicaid won't pay.

"I'd love to see our federal delegation at least take a look at this," Taylor said.

The 71st General Assembly beings on Wednesday.

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