Inmates in Denver’s jails can wait days after posting a bond before being released — a delay that has inspired bipartisan legislation that will require county sheriffs to release people within four hours of posting bail.
Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman acknowledges the city’s delays in processing people, both on the front end and after bond has been posted. It’s something Denver has been working on for two years, he said, and trying to make improvements.
“We all want the same thing, nobody wants to hold people in jail longer than they need to be here,” Firman said. “It benefits us to get people out processed out quicker. It benefits our community to get people out quicker. And so I think we're all working towards the same thing and we've made some huge progress and innovations with the Denver Sheriff’s Department.”
Firman cites sheer volume — Denver books and lets out about 100 people daily — as the reason behind the delays. He also said properly identifying people, a process done by the Denver Police Department, can back up systems.
“If we've had a busy night, there are times we have remands from the courts, or there's things going on in the city and more people are getting arrested, more people are going to take more time to process,” he said. “All of those things add or take away from the amount of time and the efficiencies of trying to get them out.”
The Senate bill pending at the state legislature requires people who have been arrested to have an advisement in front of a judge within 48 hours, which will require all courts to have staff on a weekend day. It also requires people to be released within four hours of posting a bond.
Republican state Sen. Vicki Marble, herself a former bondswoman, is the bill’s sponsor. Marble said she has empathy for people who sit in jail, pre-trial, because of bureaucratic delays.
“If it's a three-day weekend, they're going to lose their jobs,” Marble said. “They have commitments to family to make, there are so many variables that go into each individual defendant and they haven't been convicted of anything.”
At the measure’s first Senate hearing, Denver was the only sheriff’s department to oppose it; no other sheriff even showed up.
Denver Sheriff Major Stephanie McManus told lawmakers she worried about the bill’s ambiguity: does the 48-hour clock start when people are arrested or are booked? What if they have outstanding warrants in other counties?
McManus said she supports the “spirit” of the bill, but that the burden is on the arresting agency — which makes it hard for somewhere as big as Denver to enforce.
“This has been and continues to be a top priority for the city and county of Denver,” she told lawmakers. “But there is a lot of ambiguity to this bill … This requirement has the potential to expose the city to extensive litigation.”
Advocates and lawyers say Denver has the resources to figure it out. They compare Denver to El Paso County, which has the single largest jail in the state, and say El Paso Sheriff Bill Elder has agreed to comply with the law.
Rebecca Wallace, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, has researched Denver’s jail release times for the past year. While the city has gotten average release times down to 4.6 hours, she said there were more than 1,000 people who waited between 24 and 48 hours to get out after posting bond.
Wallace said there were some people who posted a bond and were delayed so long in being let out that they missed court dates in other jurisdictions, sparking another arrest warrant.
“Denver's part of the reason for this bill and that's really true, and I don't deny they've been working on bringing down their release times, we could tell you dozens of stories for people waiting 20, 40 hours for release after they have posted bond,” Wallace said.
Denver County Court Presiding Judge Theresa Spahn has also sounded alarm bells. In a letter sent to Sheriff Firman last summer, obtained through an open records request, Spahn criticized the sheriff’s department for the delays in releasing inmates after bail has been posted.
“The court is experiencing a concerning and detrimental pattern where defendants are not released after one overnight and held for several days,” she wrote. “There is no room for error when a citizen’s liberty is at stake.”
Firman said the department is “working towards the right thing.”
“There is not one thing that is going to fix this and so looking at each individual piece to see where we can tweak things … making our processes more efficient on the intake and the release,” he said. “Each one of those things will help make improvements.”