By Conor McCue

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office planned to release 21 inmates early due to budget concerns on Sunday. The early releases are part of a jail population management plan which went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year.

(credit: CBS)

Officials says $5.5 million in budget cuts prompted the plan. The sheriff’s office also closed a floor of the jail to reduce staffing levels, as part of the directive.

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The jail also now has a 1,148 bed capacity compared to a previous 1,392 capacity.

“I am confident that based upon where the jail count is this evening, that we will face the same possibility tomorrow or Tuesday,” said Sheriff Jeff Shrader.

(credit: CBS)

On Sunday evening, the sheriff’s office released a list of the 21 inmates and their charges. All had served between 87% and 99% of their sentences.

Charges of the inmates who were granted an early release included possession of a controlled substance, DUI, reckless driving, motor vehicle theft and more. Shrader said several early releases concerned him, including an individual serving time for a DUI, who had three prior offenses.

(credit: CBS)

Shrader says the early release “undermines the authority of the judges and the authority of the court. Releasing inmates early, before they have completed their full sentence, is also not the message we want to send to criminals. Unfortunately, it is the action we have to take to meet the budgetary constraints we are currently faced with, and to maintain a safe environment for those who are incarcerated and our employees who work in the jail.”

To maintain population levels below the newly established capacity, jail officials will review the inmate count every morning and decide what measures need to be taken.

(credit: CBS)

When the population exceeds the capacity by 2%, officials will call for “enhanced arrest standards.” The decision would direct law enforcement agents to only take people to the jail for higher felony offenses and charges that require an advisement under the Victim’s Rights Act.

“I don’t like it when we’re going to have to get to the second phase and, based on numbers, I’m certain we’re going to have to be there probably by the spring,” the sheriff said.

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“When you’re talking about reducing a prison sentence for an individual, for example, that has multiple DUIs, which I think you see in that first list of individuals who will be released a little earlier, that raises a red flag in terms of our community safety. There’s no question about it,” said Lesley Dahlkemper, one of Jefferson County’s three commissioners.

According to Dahlkemper, this predicament all traces back to November, when Ballot Measure 1A was voted down. The controversial measure would have allowed taxpayers to temporarily opt out of TABOR, the state’s cap on what taxes a government can collect or retain, so the county could keep revenue that was collected in excess of the cap.

“We have dollars that we can use to reinvest in essential county services, but we don’t have permission from the voters to use those dollars, so in order to balance our budget, we need to look at reductions,” Dahlkemper said.

All three commissioners confirmed to CBS4 on Monday that budget cuts are, once again, a possibility in 2021. While the actual amount won’t be determined until April, the current estimate is a cut of about $16.5 million.

While Dahlkemper says another ballot initiative could be a possibility in the future, the county will follow the will of the voters and try to be more efficient with the current budget. When it comes to public safety, that could include centralizing some services or rethinking pretrial services.

Budget cuts will also affect other county departments, including the roads department, which Dahlkemper said is facing a $100 million backlog, and the District Attorney’s office, which has cut the number of attorneys in some units, despite an increase in felony cases.

“We have to look for greater innovations across the county,” Dahlkemper said. “We have to look for greater efficiencies across every county department.”

If more budget cuts come to fruition in 2021, Sheriff Shrader said the next step could be to close another floor at the jail, which would decrease capacity even more.

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UPDATE: An earlier version of this story stated that in opting out of TABOR, Jefferson County could have raised property taxes. After publication of the article, a county spokesperson contacted CBS4 and said that was never the intention of 1A.

Conor McCue