DENVER — Lawmakers are considering a bill that supporters hope will make Colorado jails safer.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced House Bill 24-1054 on Tuesday by a vote of 10-1, which would require jails to meet a basic set of standards.
Headlines from across Colorado in recent years show a troubling trend of in-custody deaths. Many of the deaths have led to lawsuits, with cities forced to pay millions of dollars in settlements.
Some of the inmate deaths were a result of suicide. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, from 2015 to 2019, 59 people died by suicide in Colorado jails.
Despite ranking 22nd in population, Colorado ranked 8th in the nation for the number of suicides in local jails, ahead of much larger states like New York, Illinois, and Michigan.
“More than 50% of the people in jail at any given time have a serious mental illness,” said State Rep. Judy Amabile.
Amabile and three of her colleagues introduced a bill that would implement a minimum set of standards jails would have to follow.
“All Coloradans deserve safe living conditions, and their health and safety shouldn’t vary greatly depending on which jail they’re placed in,” said State Rep. Lorena Garcia, D-Adams County.
Garcia is one of the bill’s sponsors.
“Our bill extends the Legislative Oversight Committee for Colorado Jail Standards to ensure that all incarcerated people in Colorado are treated equally," said Garcia. "Creating a safer environment in Colorado jails is one of many steps we can take to rehabilitate incarcerated people so they have the tools they need to break cycles of incarceration."
A commission, which included county commissioners, sheriffs, health professionals, advocates, and people who’ve experienced jail, spent over a year developing the standards.
“It’s not just for the people who are housed in the jail, but also for all the people who work in our jails,” said Amabile.
The standards cover 16 different areas and include details like how often food should be served, how long visitors can stay, and how much training jail staff should receive.
“The ultimate goal is to make jail function better,” said Amabile.
Many of the recommendations focus on caring for inmates’ physical and mental health. For instance, the standards direct jails to have a suicide prevention policy that's reviewed at least once a year and to ensure mental health screenings are completed during booking.
Jails must comply with the standards by July 1, 2026. An advisory committee, which will include sheriffs, county commissioners, the state public defender, a health professional and an advocate, will assess how jails are complying with the standards. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office will investigate violations.
Some law enforcement officials expressed concerns about the cost of implementing the standards, which could include upgrading their facilities. If the legislature approves the bill, the Department of Public Safety will help jails identify funding resources to help offset the costs of complying with the standards.
While the standards won’t solve every problem, Amabile said they are a good starting point in making jails safer.
“Most people don't ever in their life interact with the jail system. But for me and for my family, this is a very real thing,” said Amabile. “And I want to make sure that if my kid ends up in jail, he doesn't die there.”