Thanks, and funding

An incident reported in this week’s SUN is simple, on the surface; but when examined, it gives way to other facts and perceptions about the state of affairs in Pagosa Country. The incident: An assault on a detentions officer in the Archuleta County Jail last week. The officer entered a cell to calm an agitated prisoner, the prisoner slugged the officer and was then restrained by jail personnel, sheriff deputies and town police officers.

A minor incident, that leads us elsewhere.

First, to the fact the detention officers had, just that day, received additional training in how to react to similar situations. The staff is trained well and continues to receive instruction in how to maintain a safe environment in what can be a dangerous place. The jail is overseen by at least three detention officers, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, with one officer inside the control room at all times, regardless of what occurs outside the room. The jail staff now consists of 13 officers, led by Capt. Mencor Valdez. The jail also has a three-person special services team that transports inmates, that provides security when inmates are present in court and that serves civil papers in the county. Yet another officer handles the county’s alternative sentencing program and maintains the county sex offender list.

This is for a jail that can hold 34 inmates — 28 males and six females, Most of the inmates have been charged, but have not yet been sentenced. Most are held in lieu of bond; some without bond, for serious crimes. And the jail is often full.

And that leads to a second fact uncovered when examining last week’s incident.

Twenty-five years ago, the Archuleta County Jail comprised a couple ratty cells in the basement of the old courthouse — cells that, due to a suit pressed against the county, were closed, with inmates transported to other counties and held there at great cost. That suit ultimately resulted in construction of the current jail.

The inmates held in those days were generally in jail for lesser offenses — most often simple assaults (bar fights, etc.) domestic incidents, DUI and DWAI.

A check of the types of charges faced by inmates held this week draws a different, and enlightening picture: sexual assault on a child, warrant for escape, first-degree burglary, first-degree assault (involving a weapon), intimidating a witness, felony menacing, human smuggling.

Times have changed.

But, fortunately, so has the ability of local law enforcement to deal with the situation. The jail is nearly full most of the time because the authorities, so often derided by local know-it-alls, do an effective job.

Fact three: Not only is the local jail facility often strained to the limit, but it is only a short step from that to understanding the burden on municipal, county and district court systems.

There is a good argument to be made for ongoing assessment and adjustment of the body of law at the state level, and of what constitutes an offense worthy of incarceration. There are far too many offenses leading to incarceration and, thus, far too many people in the penal system at all levels.

Another argument can then be made for expanded use of creative, alternative sentencing schemes, and for the existence of drug and DUI courts that give offenders options other than jail.

Finally, an argument can and should be made to county and town elected leaders for the continued, adequate funding of local law enforcement and jail budgets.

The facts make it clear that law enforcement, the jail staff and the court system generally do their work well. They should be recognized, thanked and, most of all, well funded.

Karl Isberg