With overcrowding at the Boulder County Jail reaching a "crisis" level, Sheriff Joe Pelle says he plans to move forward with early releases for some nonviolent inmates, including some Boulder municipal offenders.

The announcement came a day after the Boulder City Council's rejection Tuesday night of an agreement in which the city would pay to house municipal inmates in other jurisdictions when overcrowding necessitates it. The agreement also would greenlight the early-release approach.

Boulder leaders balked at the notion of paying the county to house inmates arrested on city charges. But Pelle said he knows of no other county in Colorado that jails municipal offenders at no cost to the city.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle (Camera file photo)

"Right now, we're in a crisis with crowding," Pelle said, noting the 536-person-capacity jail had 520 inmates Wednesday morning.

"It's a politically difficult situation in that I understand the city is dealing with some real issues with regards to the downtown campus and the (University Hill) and the transient population, and I'm sympathetic to that," Pelle said. "But somehow I have to be able to manage this crisis in overcrowding we're having, and I thought this was a good proposal."

He said deputies at the jail Wednesday were expected to transfer 10 to 15 male inmates to the Park County Jail to help relieve some of the pressure, and he plans, for the first time since 2004, to begin moving toward early releases for some nonviolent offenders. Decisions on early releases will be made on a day-to-day basis, Pelle said, after consulting with the appropriate judge.

It is the first time Pelle said he has considered early releases for inmates being held in municipal cases.

"The county jail keeps municipal prisoners by consent, and we don't need an agreement with the city to do early releases," Pelle said. "Fortunately, the Boulder municipal judge is very understanding and is very much in agreement with our decision to do this, so I don't see this as an issue with the court."

Pelle said he felt that he had struck an agreement with city officials that would have signed off on early releases for some municipal offenders and required Boulder to pay for the cost of housing municipal inmates at jails in other jurisdictions when the Boulder County Jail reaches capacity. Those costs would have been capped at $10,000 annually.

The City Council struck the agreement down in a 5-3 vote.

'Back to the drawing board'

City spokeswoman Sarah Huntley said the council fully supports the early release of nonviolent municipal offenders "if the intent is opening up beds for people who pose a very serious public safety risk."

"What we object to is being told we have to pay additional money," Huntley said. "Is he going to charge all cities the same fee? What about inmates who were arrested in the unincorporated part of the county?"

Pelle said city employees informed his office that the proposed agreement was on the council's consent agenda — meaning it was not likely to be discussed, just voted on — and that he did not need to attend Tuesday's meeting.

Pelle had hoped to use the Boulder agreement as a model for a similar agreement with Longmont.

"We have to sort of go back to the drawing board," Pelle said, adding that discussions with the Boulder County commissioners about whether the jail should accept municipal inmates are likely ahead.

"The state statute is very clear that (the jail) is a not a municipal facility, and we only take inmates from municipal court by consent, and most counties charge for that."

Adams County Sheriff Doug Darr is being sued by the cities of Aurora, Commerce City, Thornton, Northglenn and Federal Heights after his office capped the number of municipal inmates it would take at the county jail at 30 in January 2012. The suit, which alleges the cap is creating a public safety problem, was filed in February and has yet to be ruled upon.

Out of its average daily population of 500, only about 15 to 20 inmates at the Boulder County Jail are Boulder municipal offenders, according to officials. Those inmates, arrested on charges of violating city ordinances — such as the camping ban, trespassing or open alcohol container rules — recently have faced longer jail sentences as city officials work to address behavior problems in the area between the Boulder Public Library and the Boulder Municipal Building.

Jail sentences for municipal offenses are typically a week or less.

Huntley, who said the city intends to work with Pelle to at least formalize the early-release portion of the previous agreement, doesn't feel that Boulder's municipal inmates are the biggest concern at the jail.

"We do not believe our sentencing guideline changes are the impetus for the overcrowding issue at the jail," she said. "We believe the underlying issues are deeper and broader."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Joe Rubino at 303-473-1328 or rubinoj@dailycamera.com.