A Different Kind of Time

They peer blearily out of faces that range in age from barely 18, fading acne still visible, to weathered ones perhaps as old as 60. There are 80 to 100 men and women lined up in the dismal 8 a.m. chill, the lethargic procession snaking back along the sidewalk and around the perimeter of the ice-covered asphalt. Bundled sleeping bags, pillows, overnight bags and coolers stand in piles next to their owners, some of whom seem to have packed enough to get them through two weeks in the Alaskan wilderness. But this is no giddy dockside "au revoir," no cruise liner queue. The faces are as grim as they are sleep-deprived. Last cigarettes are devoured to the dull tune of stomping feet, vainly trying to stay warm. No one says very much; not only is the hour unholy, it is downright rude.

Especially considering that these men and women are jostling for a place in line to give up their freedom for the next 33 hours.

Welcome to Larimer County's Alternative Sentencing Unit. "Alternative" in this case means that these inmates -- made up of some probation violators, some drug and domestic violence offenders, but by and large driving-while-intoxicated offenders -- won't have to don fetching orange jumpsuits and join the general population next door in the Larimer County Detention Center (LCDC). Instead, they report for "workenders" at 8 a.m. Tuesday for the mid-week program, or at 8 a.m. Saturday for the weekend program, and serve their sentences two days at a time in the relative comfort of the ASU. During the day they will go out on work crews to various non-profit groups and county-run facilities throughout Larimer County and simultaneously work to fulfill any community service hours to which they've been sentenced. And they'll spend the night on iron bunks or narrow cots in the warehouse space, where they'll wake up and go out for another day of work before being released at 5 p.m. that evening, 4 p.m. if they don't get in any trouble.

Comfort is indeed relative here.

8:10 a.m. "Come In, We've Been Expecting You"

"New people come on up," bellows the red-shirted counselor. "If you haven't been here before, sign in at the desk on the right, then take your stuff and go straight back to the room where the sign says 'New People' and have a seat."

The doors swing open and the line lurches forward even though there's nowhere to go yet. Once inside, each person signs in at a long narrow table, unwraps a disposable plastic tube and blows through the breathalyzer operated by one of two counselors before being allowed to enter the warehouse-like space. This is a vital part of the process: Even a trace of alcohol left over from the night before is enough to get an inmate kicked out of the ASU and sent over to the main detention center to finish out his or her sentence in one of those orange jumpsuits. It's a threat that nevertheless fails to deter at least one or two people a week from "blowing hot."

Though exact numbers aren't readily available, by some estimates from ASU staff, as many as 60 or 70 percent of the people who find themselves in this strange hybrid jail have traffic violations of some sort, usually multiple DWIs or convictions for driving under suspension. People like Rob Benton are typical of those who pass through the workender program. Benton incurred three DWIs and a probation violation to earn his current 180-day sentence. To him, reporting to ASU every Tuesday morning is disruptive to his life, but not like doing six months of straight time would be.

"It's a routine, you get used to it," he says. "Once you get to know the crew leaders it's pretty easy going. When you first get in there it's a little intimidating. But once you get to know what they expect from you, it's not too bad."

Alternative sentencing is a fairly recent phenomenon that allows judges to punish non-violent offenders who have little or no criminal history without sentencing them to straight time in county lock-up. In Larimer County, it all stems from humble beginnings.

"It really goes back to the 1970s or early 1980s," says Sheriff Jim Alderden. "It started with one guy running it in his personal Volkswagen van with flowers painted on it. Before we moved to these facilities (on Midpoint Drive) we had inmates in the basement of what was the old sheriff's office on Oak Street. We had the hallways lined with cots."

But those were certainly the old days; the numbers of people sentenced to these programs has skyrocketed, especially as LCDC swells to over-capacity with the number of straight-time inmates crammed into the facility. In 1997 just over 1,000 people went through the workender program. In 2002 that figure was over 1,500. The waiting list for workenders is about two to three months; to get into the work release program takes as long as six to eight months.

And the reason why so many more people are being sentenced to these programs may have little to do with the judges who are actually handing down the sentences. Local defense attorney Bill Wawro says we can blame lawmakers in Denver.

"The thing is, alternative sentencing started with the best intentions," Wawro says. "It was to take people who hadn't had particularly serious offenses or egregious offenses or even multiple offenses, and give them an alternative to hardcore incarceration. What it has evolved into is that people are doing alternative sentencing for every little penny-ante deal that comes down the pike, and a lot of that is legislatively mandated."

There are five programs that fall under the ASU umbrellathe workender program, work release, home detention, the new combo program (which combines two days of work release with one day of workenders) and community service. The 36-bed work release program, where inmates go out to their regular jobs during the day and sleep at the ASU facility at night, may have the longest backlog, but the workender program is by far the most populous. The 1,500 workender inmates in 2002, the most recent year for which Larimer County has complete information available, served a total of 17,373 days, up from 11,000 in 1997. There are usually around 110 inmates here on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and about 150 on weekends.

The program's surge in popularity and the attendant waiting lists were a big reason why Alderden pushed for an expansion of the facility last fall. Alderden has long warned that the jail and its programs are approaching the breaking point; too many people are sentenced to the facility and there isn't enough money to fully staff it. But a bond issue put before voters last year, which would have increased taxes to provide additional funding for the ASU, failed to pass. The backlog remains.

"One of the premises of criminal justice is that the punishment has to be certain and swift," Alderden says. "When you're delaying punishment eight months, pretty soon there isn't a nexus between the punishment and the crime. It's like punishing your dog when you whack him on the nose for peeing on the carpet: If you see him do it and you punish him, it has an impact. If you wait for three days, he's like, 'What the heck was that for?' There's some truth to that."

10:30 a.m.--Four Crew Sheets to the Wind

"Okay, everybody up front for crew sheets!"

Once again, the man in the red shirt is bellowing. "I want to see you up at the tables here or sitting up in your bunks so at least it looks like you're paying attention."

A group of Latino men playing dominoes momentarily stop clacking the pieces on the cafeteria-style table. Voices that were previously catching up on a weeks' worth of news fall mostly silent.

In orientation, the red-shirted man said his name is Leon, and that he and his co-workers are called "counselors," not guards. He also informs the new people that the workender program is indeed a working program; inmates are expected to work when out on crews. Also, although part of each day is going to be spent working with the public outside of the facility, there are jail-type punishments for certain infractions: Fighting will get you kicked out of the ASU, as will bringing in contraband. Since the ASU is technically a jail facility, that will also land you additional criminal charges. So does walking out of the ASU or leaving a job site -- that's considered felony escape. Also, you, your belongings, even your car if it's in the LCDC parking lot can be searched at any time.

Once Leon has read off all the names on the list and announced which counselor individual inmates are assigned to for the day, everyone scrambles to put on extra layers and grab the lunch they brought with them or if they forgot or were running too late to pack a lunch, they grab one of the mystery meat sandwiches LCDC provides. The crews head out to the four buses that line up to whisk them away to various jobs around the county.

"You work for places like Hearts for Horses, (an organization) that helps developmentally disabled kids with their riding program," says counselor Dana Hersch, an 18-year veteran of the ASU. "You know you're helping something that's a good project. We have a toy project that we started where we build toys and give them to kids as a part of the Santa Cops program. The group of inmates that spent six or eight weeks painting toys that go to underprivileged kids (took) a lot of pride in it."

From the inmates' standpoint, going out to work, whether it's to shovel snow, paint low-income houses or setting up livestock fencing at the Larimer County Fairgrounds is a blessed time-killer, a needed distraction.

The worst part "is probably the idle time you spend sitting around," says Benton. "For the most part, I think it's a good program. One thing I would like to possibly see them do is, (in LCDC) you get one extra day credit for every three that you're in there (called 'good time'). So I don't see why they can't figure out some way of passing out some good time. There's some of us in there, we go out on a job, we do what's expected of us and we bust our butts and we get it done. And there's other guys in there that stand around and don't do anything. They tell you it's a working program, but they won't write up the people who don't work, so there's no punishment involved if you don't work, and there's no incentive to work. So why should I work?"

5:00 p.m.--Come and Get It

Dinner.

Some sort of alleged pasta with white or red goo attached to it. Boiled carrots or funky-looking coleslaw. Some kind of weird flat yellow cake. Lots and lots of people pull frozen dinners or homemade meals from their coolers. Good choice.

"I don't eat the food," says Lisa (not her real name), a student who is serving 90 days for her second DWI. "I'll eat the oranges, but I won't eat anything they make. But the worst thing to me, obviously it's not all that terrible to be in there, but the worst thing is that I have to interrupt my life. I can't do my normal things, go to school or work or see my friends for those two days."

For people like Benton and Lisa who are serving lengthy sentences, some sort of "good time" program makes sense, especially considering the backlog of people waiting to get in to the workenders program. However, the sheriff says his hands are tied regarding the good time issue, though he's working on it.

"Statutorily we're not allowed to give good time now," Alderden says. "But we're hoping to introduce a late bill in this legislative session that will give us the authority to do that. The opposing viewpoint might be that since they're already doing the light time as opposed to the hard time in jail, that may be the only break they need. I don't know how the courts are going to respond to that, but we're going to have that discussion."

Another legislative change Alderden is hoping to effect is to give LCDC staff more control over moving inmates back and forth between different programs. As it stands now, the only reason ASU staff can call over to LCDC and ask deputies to take someone away for violating the rules is because technically the courts have sentenced each of the inmates here to straight time, with the caveat that they can serve it in ASU as long as they behave. Most other changes in an inmate's status require a court order, a process Alderden hopes to streamline, again with the hope of alleviating the pressure on the burgeoning jail population.

"What we envision doing at some point in the future, is say we've got a guy who's sentenced to a year in jail," Alderden says. "Say after nine months and he's been a model prisoner in jail, would it make sense to move him to work release? And say he's doing good in work-release, can we move him to an ankle monitor? Give us some sort of range that we can move people back and forth, step people up and down the program."

6:00-10:00 p.m."Free" Time

After dinner the big screen TV comes on. People either watch, read, play games or just sit around and talk. The trick is not to fall asleep early; the lights are out from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m. It's hard enough for many inmates to go to sleep that early, on an uncomfortable bunk, in a room full of a hundred snoring strangers even if you haven't been napping.

The next day will be more of the same, although the mood is considerably lighter on day two. The work crews go out a little earlier, but also come back earlier, usually around 3 p.m. For anyone who hasn't gotten into trouble, 4 p.m. is the magic hour when they can sign out and charge into the parking lot to flee and be free for the longest possible time before they have to return.

"I think it is a valuable program," says Alderden. "It's unfortunate that (the tax measure to fund expansion) didn't pass the last time. We're going to muddle through, but at some point we're going to have to bring this back before the voters, or the commissioners are going to have to explore some other funding. But I don't think we're going to be able to continue to operate with six and eight month backlogs."

Wawro agrees with Alderden on this point.

"The damn legislature, they just throw this stuff out like it was popcorn and never give people enough money to fund anything," Wawro says. "So the counties are just kind of stuck with it, these unfunded mandates. With some of these legislators you'd think they won't be happy until everybody's in jail.

"Of course, until their kid gets in trouble."

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