Boulder County Sheriff says jail 'at breaking point' as mentally ill population grows

BOULDER, Colo. - Arrest numbers are down in Boulder County, but staff at the jail say crowding has reached an all-time high, largely due to an increasing number of mentally ill inmates.

"I'm running a mental institution, not a jail," said Boulder Sheriff Joe Pelle.

Pelle said the numbers have been in increasing, and currently, the mentally ill make up 30 to 40-percent of the jail population.

"It's hard to manage. They don't make bond and they tend to be in jail three to four times longer than an inmate without a mental illness," Pelle said, attributing that to evaluations and other delays as they make their way through the court system.

He said the jail is also seeing more chronic offenders, who can't make bail due to  warrants in multiple counties, and female offenders.

"The women's numbers have exploded." Pelle said. "Originally we'd house 20 women in that jail and now we're housing 70-80."

7NEWS toured the jail Monday and found women triple-bunked in small cells meant for two people.

Staff said packing in inmates is the new normal.

"We don't have the staffing resources to handle the population that we have," said Division Chief Bruce Haas.

Pelle has proposed a new facility that would cater to low-level offenders and expand the work release program cut to accommodate the increase in inmates.

"It could free up 120 beds in jail tomorrow and use them for people who really need to be in jail," Pelle said.

Of course it would come at a cost. Pelle estimates $6-10 million for construction in addition to operating expenses. Money hard to come by in a county forced to spend millions to repair damage from historic flooding. Pelle acknowledged funding may have to come from a voter-approved tax increase.

7NEWS asked why voters should want to put more money toward people in jail.

"Right. It's easy to go to people and say, 'Can you pay for a park, open space or trail system?' People like doing that," said Pelle. "It's really difficult to go and say, 'The system's broken.' The reality is, this is the core of public safety."

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