Arapahoe County Ballot Issue 1A is a measure on this fall’s ballot that asks voters to approve a tax increase of $46 million per year to pay for the construction, maintenance, and operation of a new jail. The county estimates construction alone will cost $464 million.¹ Funds may be used for jail programs, but NONE of the money can be used for community-based mental health or addiction services. Not surprisingly, 1A is being supported by companies that build jails, and it is opposed by nonprofits concerned by over-incarceration and the lack of treatment services available in Arapahoe County. View a sample ballot to read the full language of the measure.

Why Vote NO on 1A?

It may be well-intentioned, but Ballot Issue 1A is the wrong approach for Arapahoe County. In summary:

  • There are more effective and less expensive ways to accomplish 1A’s stated goals of preventing overcrowding and improving conditions in the jail. Building a new jail without addressing the county’s overuse of its current jail will result in the new jail becoming just as overcrowded and dilapidated. Before the county invests significant taxpayer dollars in a jail expansion, it needs to adopt best practices for safely reducing its jail population (some of which are highlighted below).
  • 1A directs significant resources toward building a bigger jail and virtually no resources toward prevention and treatment. Nearly half a billion dollars will be spent on jail construction, while zero dollars will be directed toward community-based mental health and addiction services. Funds raised by 1A may be used for inmate services and programs inside the jail, but the measure is so vaguely worded that there is no guarantee. Also, people struggling with addiction and mental health conditions should not have to go to jail in order to access treatment.
  • 1A is a step in the wrong direction. After years of overreliance on its jails and prisons, Colorado is moving toward promoting prevention and treatment as alternatives to incarceration. If Arapahoe County builds a bigger jail, it will have less incentive to pursue smart criminal justice reforms that safely reduce the jail population and save taxpayer dollars.

It’s a bad deal for Arapahoe County.

  • It’s expensive. Building the proposed jail will cost taxpayers upwards of half a billion dollars at a time when funds are desperately needed for community mental health and addiction services.
  • It’s unnecessary. The current jail is rarely full—the average daily population hovers around 75% capacity¹— but it has been overused for years. Rather than build a bigger jail at a huge cost to taxpayers, the county should take steps to safely lower the average daily population (see below for examples). This would eliminate the possibility of overcrowding, prevent wear and tear on the jail, and reduce the need for (and costs of) renovations.
  • It’s inflexible. Funds raised by this permanent tax increase will always have to be spent on the criminal justice system, even if they are not needed or other more pressing needs arise.

There are smarter, more cost-effective ways to prevent jail overcrowding and improve safety.

  • Change bail bond practices to safely reduce the jail population. More than 60% of the inmates in the Arapahoe County jail have NOT been convicted of a crime, and many of them are only in jail because they could not afford to pay bail.² The county could significantly reduce its jail population by following the lead of other Colorado counties and reforming its money bail system. In Mesa County, which has reformed its bail system, commissioners recently decided not to bother putting a jail expansion measure on the ballot.
  • Extend the court schedule to reduce the amount of time pre-trial detainees spend in the jail. If Arapahoe County changed its court schedule from five days per week to six or seven days per week, as other local governments have done, people would spend fewer days in jail waiting for their court appearances.
  • Invest in community-based mental health services and treatment programs. Before spending taxpayer dollars on an expensive new jail, the county should explore ways of expanding community-based services and programs that reduce crime and keep people out of jail. For example, Mesa County now operates the state’s only county-funded residential treatment center, which provides mental health and addiction services to the entire community. If Arapahoe County builds a new jail before investing in these much-needed services, the new jail will just become overcrowded again and the county will likely find itself asking voters to increase taxes to pay for treatment programs. This is exactly what happened in Denver. Officials asked voters to approve a new jail in 2005. In 2018, after the new jail became overcrowded, they had to go back to the voters again, this time to approve funding for mental health services and substance abuse treatment.

Arapahoe County voters strongly prefer alternatives to building a new jail.

A Public Policy Polling survey of 718 Arapahoe County voters conducted September 13-15, 2019, found:

  • When it comes to improving public safety, nearly eight out of 10 voters (79%) agree the county would benefit more from increasing funding for community-based mental health and addiction services than it would from funding construction of a bigger jail.
  • When it comes to preventing jail overcrowding, seven out of 10 Arapahoe County voters think the county should focus on safely reducing the jail population instead of building a new jail. Just 15% think it should build a new jail. Three out of four Arapahoe County voters (77%) think the county should change bail bond practices rather than build a bigger jail.

Issue 1A is supported by the jail construction industry and opposed by nonprofits working to advance civil rights and sensible criminal justice reform.

As of October 16, 2019, more than 75% of the donations to the campaign in support of Issue 1A have come from companies that are in the business of jail construction, services, or financing.3 Much of the rest came from local business and economic development interests. Voters should know that the ads they see in favor of raising taxes for a new jail are largely being paid for by businesses that profit from taxpayer-funded jail construction projects. Donors to the jail campaign include:

  • J.E. Dunn Construction, a Kansas City company currently building a correctional facility in Kansas
  • Cator, Ruma & Associates, a Lakewood company that has built detention and justice centers in Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska
  • Reilly Johnson Architecture, a Denver company that has built detention and justice centers in Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska
  • Systems Design International, Inc., which provides food, laundry, and other services to correctional facilities
  • Haselden Construction, which built jails in Jefferson and Broomfield counties
  • FCI Constructors Inc., a Grand Junction company that built a justice center in Northglenn
  • GE Johnson, a Colorado Springs company that built a courthouse in Gunnison and bid on the jail construction project in Archuleta County
  • Stifel Nicolaus, a St. Louis investment bank that has helped underwrite jails in South Carolina

It’s also telling that 1A is supported by business interests and companies that build jails, but opposed by nonprofits and community members concerned by over-incarceration and the lack of treatment services in Arapahoe County. Opponents of 1A include:

  • ACLU of Colorado
  • American Friends Service Committee
  • Colorado Black Women for Political Action
  • Colorado Coalition for the Homeless
  • Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition
  • Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition
  • Colorado People’s Alliance
  • Interfaith Alliance of Colorado
  • Libertarian Party of Arapahoe County
  • Second Chance Center
¹ Aurora Sentinel, “Arapahoe County voters to consider property tax hike to finance $464 million jail,” 8/28/19
² Aurora Sentinel, “HARD CELL: Persuading voters to raise taxes for a new Arapahoe County jail won’t be easy,” 9/27/19
3 Safer Arapahoe County campaign finance reports filed with the Colorado Secretary of State, 10/15-16/19