Nobody’s home at the Pitkin County jail.
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.
Inmate numbers in recent months have been some of the lowest since a lull of just two inmates some 20 years ago, jail officials say.
Police Chief Richard Pryor said there have been about 65 arrests in Aspen since early June, but most are misdemeanors and minor charges, including drunken driving, public disturbances, domestic violence and warrant arrests.
“They are mostly charges that people are able to easily bond out on, so they don’t end up staying in jail,” he said. “It’s probably the reason why there aren’t so many folks in jail.”
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.
Jail officials in other counties often write off Pitkin County as being a “boutique jail,” Bird said.
He admits that the local criminal caseload is low, but stressed that “this jail is real. We just have the luxury of not being overwhelmed.”
And the local philosophy of treating the causes of an inmate problems, not just punishing the symptoms, pays off, he said.
Nancy Reichman, professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver, agreed.
Without knowing specifics about Pitkin County, Reichman said that there are two major factors that empty or fill a jail: the amount of criminal activity, and how law enforcement officials funnel people into custody.
“The behavior of law enforcement is determinative of how the jails fill,” Reichman said.
She suggested looking farther “downstream” to see why things are so quiet behind bars in Aspen. And treatment in jail also is a factor, she said.
“To understand the jail population, you also need to understand the suite of services available to inmates,” she said, such as substance abuse and mental health help.
Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, who was instrumental in getting the downtown jail built in the mid-1980s, said that while there are reliable trends to local crimes — such as spikes in theft in offseason or drunken driving in high season — there are no reliable statistics for the inmate population in Aspen.
Like Bird, Braudis chalks up low inmate numbers to a different mentality of law enforcement.
“An empty jail is a perfect jail,” Braudis said. “The reason we have jails is to separate predators from their prey.”
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.”
Most inmates in Aspen are pretrial detainees charged with crimes but who have not yet been tried, Braudis said.
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.
Meanwhile, 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.
And while jail administrators in other counties are becoming “increasingly punitive,” Braudis said things are just done differently in Aspen.
Bird said inmates in more “relaxed” condition in Pitkin County have a chance to get off of the controlled substances which many abuse. Some are able to see who they really are for the first time.
“The real person is someone that the guy himself doesn’t even know,” Bird said, pointing to cases of recent inmates who cleaned up and prospered during long stays in Aspen.
“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.