An Enlightented Crime Policy: The Best Jail is an Empty One

With all the fear-mongering that politicians engage in during election years, backed by many in law enforcement, particularly those of the broken windows school who think the key lies in busting and getting petty offenders off the street, it's refreshing to report on a place where a different mindset prevails , resulting in both a low crime rate and a near empty jail.

The place: Aspen, Colorado. The Sheriff: Bob Braudis. Others going along with the program of not making it a policy to lock up low-level offenders: the judges, the prosecutors and the Jail Administrator.

On Thursday there were just three full-time inmates and five people on work release in a facility that can hold as many as 30....Jail administrator Don Bird, however, chalks up the low numbers to what he called an “enlightened system of justice” in the upper valley. From law enforcement on the street, to the district attorney, courts and the jail, there is communication and a common goal of rehabilitation, not just human warehousing and punishment, he said.


Bird, who goes to regular conventions of the American Jail Association, said Pitkin County’s situation is unique. “Everybody’s bursting at the seams except us,” he said.

The philosophy behind it:"Treating the causes of an inmate problems, not just punishing the symptoms" and "an empty jail is a perfect jail."

Like Bird, Braudis chalks up low inmate numbers to a different mentality of law enforcement. Jails should exist only to separate predators from their prey.

The mentality:

Thanks to the upvalley district attorney’s office and the courts, nonviolent criminals and misdemeanor offenders are able to bond out on charges where, in other parts of the state, they might be stuck behind bars in what he called “the most punitive criminal justice system in U.S. history.”

Braudis and others in law enforcement work with judges to ensure a “flexible and fair” bond level that does not simply punish the poor, he said.

“I don’t want a guy to spend days or weeks in jail because he doesn’t have $100,” Braudis said. He believes in legislative forms that would end mandatory minimums that limit a judge’s ability to find creative solutions for nonviolent offenders.

Another policy difference: treating inmates with respect.

Pitkin County’s jail is designed to take the stress off of inmates, Braudis said. Instead of just “tiers and catwalks,” the facility more often sees Bird and inmates sitting down to lunch.

“If you treat someone like an animal, you release an animal,” Braudis said, adding that the jail’s mission is to return people in as good condition, or better physically and mentally, to the community as they were before. “Other than their freedom, an inmate in my jail should be deprived of nothing else,” Braudis said.

Braudis and Byrd say many of their inmates have cleaned up, gotten of drugs, and found themselves while in their facility.

“We don’t see bad guys in here; we see guys who’ve made bad choices and face consequences for what they did,” Bird said.

What a difference being smart about crime, instead of just tough on crime, can make.

Braudis, Colorado's favorite Sheriff, has been Sheriff of Pitkin County since 1986. I wrote more about him here, making one of TalkLeft's only requests to readers to contribute to a political campaign. His law enforcement experience is here (pdf.)

As Jimmy Ibbotson sang about him during his last re-election campaign, "An officer of peace, his county rocks."

< Monday Night Veepstakes Thread | Monday Night Open Thread >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    Has nothing to do with crime (none / 0) (#1)
    by pluege on Mon Aug 18, 2008 at 10:11:44 PM EST
    busting and getting petty offenders off the street

    those in positions of power so inclined pick-on the weakest among us do so to sate their sadism, insecurity, and bully fetishes, not to address crime.  It would be easier and less costly to eliminate petty "crimes" with a magnanimous society that helped the weak instead of using them to feel superior about themselves if eliminating petty "crime" was the objective.

    Great article (none / 0) (#2)
    by chopper on Mon Aug 18, 2008 at 10:35:02 PM EST
    But, since mandatory sentencing started the system has been locking up basically good kids who made a mistake and turning them into hard-core criminals with extremely long sentences.

    They are not only ruining that person's life unnecessarily, they are destroying society.

    Those going along with this barbaric practice should feel violated, and those subjected to it in reality are violated in the cruel prison system.

    We can thank most Republicans for their inability to perceive the insanity of the system.  But, I really don't understand how they can allow a state, like California for example, to go bankrupt because of it.

    They don't want to raise taxes, especially on the rich.  They want to cut spending, but they would rather cut needed health care and education rather than cut spending by revising sentencing laws and releasing inmates who shouldn't be locked away like animals.

    So, they continue to ruin lives and society, while at the same time bankrupting government.

    I love the approach.... (none / 0) (#3)
    by kdog on Tue Aug 19, 2008 at 10:00:41 AM EST
    but since there is little money in such an enlightened approach for the criminal justice profiteers, I don't see it spreading beyond Aspen.

    what can be done in small close-knit communities. Kudos to Aspen.

    I hope it lasts. (none / 0) (#5)
    by JSN on Tue Aug 19, 2008 at 02:38:32 PM EST
    I recall reading a consultants report about a rural Colorado county where the jail population had suddenly doubled. The consultant was suppose to make recommendations about replacing or expanding the jail, Instead the consultant found out why the jail population had suddenly doubled. It was because they had a new county attorney and a judge. The consultant did not say so but the obvious conclusion was the county could save a lot of money by replacing the new CA and judge.