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Their job is to build alternatives to jail in Denver. They say the city is blocking them from doing

David Sachs - Denverite  | Published on 9/1/2021

A group of government leaders and city residents tasked with finding creative ways to reduce the number of people rotating through Denver’s jail system is being hindered by the very bureaucracy it’s supposed to be helping.

Part of the Crime Prevention and Control Commission’s mission is to fund alternatives to jail, analyze their effectiveness, and recommend their continuation or not.

Over the years, the group has launched ideas that have become permanent pieces of the criminal justice system, like outreach court, which helps people experiencing homelessness deal with tickets and warrants. The CPCC also catalyzed Denver’s co-responder program, which pairs police officers with behavioral health experts. Drug court, sobriety court, wellness court and various reentry programs are also funded and appraised by the commission and run by various city departments.

But several CPCC members feel sidelined by Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration, which has blocked the group from pushing programs out from under their umbrella and into the relevant city departments.

For instance, the co-responders initiative gets $700,000 from the commission’s budget but is funneled to the Denver Police Department. Commission members argue that DPD should be spending money from its own budget.

Members say that doing so would make room for new ideas around, say, youth and gun violence, to be incubated by zeroing out the commission’s budget as places like the Department of Safety and Denver Human Services absorb the costs and scale the programs.

However, Bob McDonald, head of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment where the commission is housed, has denied the group’s request to transfer the programs and their budgets, citing uncertainties caused by the pandemic.

At the CPCC’s last meeting, Carol Peeples, head of Remerg, which helps people coming out of prison and jail, said she was “dumbstruck.”

“This is not okay to me as a representative of the community and this money from the city coffers,” said Peeples, who is an appointee and volunteer. “This is just not a transparent thing at all.”

McDonald technically sits on the committee but neither he nor his delegate, Jeff Holliday, attended the meeting to deliver the news to the group.

Holliday, who is head of the health department’s behavioral health division, said in an interview that their goals are the same as the group’s — to transition programs out of the CPCC.

That’s been his goal, he said, since the commission landed in the public health department in 2019 after stints in the city’s public safety and human services shops.

Holliday blamed pandemic budget cuts and uncertainty for keeping the CPCC’s hands tied in 2020 and 2021. And chances seem good that 2022 will be the same.

“One of the things that I’m trying to start to prepare the commission for is at least the possibility that those programs may not come off (the books) in ’22 because, not surprisingly, the city has experienced a significant impact to its general fund,” Holliday said. “And we’re going into the fall with a delta variant and a lambda variant, and lord knows what else, and there’s some uncertainty about how things will proceed as we move into the fall and winter and spring.”

By keeping the program dollars under the CPCC umbrella, Holliday argues his shop is actually protecting the money as departments face possible budget cuts.

“To the extent that the monies sit there, they have some protection,” Holliday said. “If they do roll over to the departments, they just go into general fund, so they’re not protected in the same way.”

However, in 2018, during happier fiscal times, Holliday requested a change to the commission that took a guaranteed yearly sum of money away from the group and entered it into the competitive, annual budget process, Denver City Council meetings show. The council unanimously passed those changes.

The intent, Holliday said at the time, was to empower the commission to recommend funding priorities based on its analysis of the programs’ success and failures. Holliday told Denverite that the commission is working on a process that would have departments apply to the CPCC for funds for innovative ideas, but that won’t happen until the 2023 budget season.

The money may stay attached to existing criminal justice reforms, but why does the commission exist if it’s not acting as a petri dish for new ones?

According to the ordinance, the commission is supposed “to provide initial funding opportunities” to “foster innovation and alternatives in the criminal justice system.”

Members said they’ve been trying to clear programs off of their books for years so they can make room for new programs that reduce recidivism. Shawn Cohn, chief probation officer for the city’s juvenile courts, told her fellow commission members last week that the debate is “nothing new.”

“I do think there needs to be some clarity because it certainly has been frustrating to sit on a committee for such a long time with the same issues that continue to arise,” said Cohn, who has sat on the commission since 2008.

The city budget has allocated a yearly average of $2.9 million to the commission since 2005, according to the Denver Office of Finance. The commission received its largest sum in 2020: more than $3.6 million.

Holliday said the commission’s hands aren’t as tied as they may seem. The commission should also seek money from sources outside of the city, the ordinance states. Holliday name-dropped the “Caring 4 Denver” fund, which uses tax dollars to pay for new approaches to behavioral health problems, as a possible source.

Still, commission members feel like the reform work they signed up for is stifled.

“If we’re spinning our wheels and really being cut off from what we intend to do, then we gotta make that known,” said Taj Ashaheed, a member of the commission and a program manager with the Second Chance Center. “I don’t think any person who’s done any type of work … should continue to do it without having an ear to your voice.”

The commission’s existence is what some would call a political concession after Denver decided to build a really big jail.

The 33-member Crime Prevention and Control Commission began under the Hickenlooper administration in 2005 following the approval of a controversial jail and courthouse project, pushed by the former mayor and approved by voters, that opponents said would increase the jail population and double down on a faulty criminal justice system.

“Certainly there’s that perspective that it was a political concession, but it really is a tool to offer an alternative to incarceration,” said James Mejia, who ran the campaign to build the downtown jail and a courthouse connected by a tunnel.

Mejia said knew from a previous attempt to fund a new jail that people wanted alternatives, not just bars. He saw the commission as a way to achieve those goals.

“But a tool is only as good as it is and it is used,” Mejia said. “And if the objective is not a shared objective or if the pursuit is not a pursuit that is desired, the tool doesn’t matter.”

In 2014, Denver had reduced its average daily jail population by 546 people since 2005, according to the Denver Post. More recent statistics from the Denver Sheriff Department show a steady decline in the jail population since 2017 with a recent rise.

Councilmember Candi CdeBaca, who sits on the commission and wants to see behavioral health dollars replace dollars for traditional policing and jailing, sees the situation as a failed opportunity to institute lasting change. If fewer jail beds are necessary, for example, then the sheriff department should absorb the cost of the program that’s saving them money, she said.

“For years and years they spun their wheels because they would just fund programs over and over and over,” CdeBaca said, “never able to force the agencies to adopt the programs and scale them up.”

Holliday says he still wants to send the successful programs off to their rightful departments but doesn’t want to lose their funding altogether.

“I don’t think that there’s any question in anybody’s mind that that’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I think that we all have agreement in common on that. The issue is more making sure that we protect the existing programs.”