Jail staff pressured to turn a profit

Moffat County Jail administrator Lt. Dean Herndon is feeling the pressure to turn a profit at the jail at a time when he often doesn't have enough staff to safely run the facility.

"You're asking me if I feel pressure to make money? Yes, just to have enough help to run this place," said Herndon, the jail administrator. "Right now the staff is overburdened with the inmates they have to deal with."

Herndon says many times he is forced to run the jail with only two detention officers.

"We're putting everybody's life in jeopardy when we do that," he said.

Herndon says he spends much of his time trying to get inmates to pay assessments they owe to the jail.

"That's what I do, I run around and chase a dollar," Herndon said.

County Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos said not only does the county need the jail to make more money, but she also expected it to do so.

"The plan was that we would have a certain dollar amount" from community corrections and jail fees, Raftopoulos said.

"What we really need to increase is the work-release program," she said.

Under the work-release program, inmates pay $42 per day while they serve their time. But they are allowed to leave the jail to go to work. If the jail could fill its 16 work-release beds every day of the year, it would create more than $200,000 in jail revenue.

Tuesday, the Moffat County Jail had only two work-release inmates in its custody. Raftopoulos said the jail needs to increase these numbers.

"If we could get from five to eight (work-release inmates), there would be a significant increase in the revenue stream," Raftopoulos said.

Herndon said the average for the jail isn't even five.

Raftopoulos admits neither she nor Herndon can raise those numbers, because judges ultimately decide how many inmates will be sentenced to work release.

But because inmates must meet certain criteria to be sentenced to work release, the pool of potential paying inmates isn't very large.

"Unfortunately, I think that's the stark reality," said Michael O'Hara, the chief judge of the 14th Judicial District.

First of all, a work-release inmate needs to have a job. That narrows the field. Then, the inmate needs to have a job that pays well enough for the work-release program to make sense.

As O'Hara noted, inmates with minimum-wage jobs would lose money. That isn't much incentive to participate in the program.

O'Hara can impose a "cost of care" charge that requires inmates to pay their way in jail, but when he takes into account the inmate's entire case, its often not feasible.

"The problem is, when I add up all the other financial assessments that I'm required to impose at the time of sentencing, it's gonna take them years to pay that off. The question becomes, how much should they have to pay to go to jail?" O'Hara said. "I have to be realistic about it. I also can't make it (paying to go to jail) punitive to them, because that's not supposed to be the punishment. We don't have debtor's prison anymore in this country after the revolution."

Assuming the prisoner has a job that pays well enough for the program to make sense, other factors still may force the judge to decide against a work-release sentence.

Work-release candidates can't be a flight risk. Herndon said Routt County discontinued their work-release program after an inmate escaped while he was supposed to be at his job.

Also, the inmate must not have a history of "serious violations," O'Hara said.

Certain factors encourage the judge to impose a work-release sentence.

"I might be more inclined to give someone work-release if I knew they were paying child support or if they have a bunch of restitution they have to pay. I don't want the victim to lose out because I made (the convicted) go to jail and lose their job," O'Hara said.

Work-release inmates may never provide the revenue the jail needs for the county government to rest easy and for Herndon to acquire the help he says is much needed.

Jails that make money are rare, according to Herndon. He said he only knows of one jail in Colorado that turns a profit. It's in Park County, much closer to Denver. It also has a better contract with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which allows the Park County Jail to hold INS inmates for an extended period of time.

Moffat County makes $56 per day to hold INS inmates, but it can only hold them for three days.

Another way for the Moffat County Jail to make money is by holding inmates from other counties on their way to a Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) prison. Herndon says Moffat County houses Mesa County's backlog of female inmates on their way to the DOC. These women often have to wait four to six months to reach DOC. The state pays Moffat County $46 per day to house these inmates.

Herndon says Moffat County will sometimes pick up 10 inmates at a time from Mesa County. The arrangement makes money, but it isn't perfect. Herndon says these inmates normally create more problems and require more supervision than county jail inmates do. For Herndon, it's a tight spot. He needs to make money to convince the county to hire more help, but even a profitable scheme like holding DOC inmates requires more manpower, which Herndon lacked at the outset.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

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