Grand Jury Findings on Jail Program Released
Former Sheriff’s Program Improperly Managed
The following press release was distributed to media outlets by Colorado’s 5th District Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown’s office on Thursday, June 6. It is printed here in its entirety.
A grand jury (The 5th Judicial District 2019-2020) report was ordered released by the District Court regarding the Lake County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) ‘cost of care’ program. The report details how inmates were illegally charged fees and costs while incarcerated without court orders. According to the Grand Jury’s report, then Sheriff Rodney Fenske’s administration did not follow procedures outlined under Colorado State law before collecting from sentenced inmates costs attributable to their incarceration before having those fees deducted from money deposited on their accounts. Sheriff Fenske retired in 2018.
The complete grand jury findings were detailed in a nine-page report that was just released in the ‘public interest’, as required by law. The report detailed recommendations to restore the individual inmates’ funds improperly taken, and steps to be taken to prevent recurrence.
The ‘cost of care’ program began in January 2018, when then-Sheriff Fenske decided the LCSO would begin seeking reimbursement from inmates of costs of care, as allowed under Colorado law. Undersheriff William Kirkland, appointed in December 2017, talked with the local Judge and initiated a practice where the Court would order an inmate after conviction for their cost of care. Essentially, the inmate would be paying for their own housing and meals, a not uncommon practice.
Where the application of the State law got off the rails was that the jail began collecting these fees even where the Court didn’t order their collection, according to the Grand Jury findings which were based upon evidence and testimony, during the non-public and secret Grand Jury proceeding. Grand Jury proceedings are kept secret to assure their integrity.
The ’whistleblower’ on the jail practice turned out to be an inmate at the Lake County jail who complained to a Deputy, prompting that Deputy to dig into the practice, reviewing court orders and financial accounts, and concluding that the practice was improper. When the Deputy complained to his superiors, he waited and eventually disclosed to newly elected Sheriff Amy Reyes, sworn in Jan. 2019, who relayed the Deputy’s concerns to the District Attorney’s office. The District Attorney functions as the Grand Jury’s legal advisor.
During the Grand Jury’s review, it concluded at least 14 inmate files had been improperly billed more than $16,000 during 2018. The Lake County jail, which has since been closed, books into custody 400-500 inmates annually. The grand jury has recommended a more comprehensive review be conducted to assure that all improperly billed accounts are disclosed and reimbursed.
The Grand Jury, while not finding sufficient evidence to issue any indictments, did conclude that the jail ‘cost of care’ program was improperly managed and supervised; that ‘cost of care’ policies were incomplete and unwritten; and that there was a general attitude among Sheriff Fenske’s sworn personnel that was indifferent to the proper application of procedure, departing from a standard of professionalism expected of all jail managers within the State of Colorado.
“I want to thank our Grand Jury for their continued hard work and dedication to ensuring the rule of law is followed, especially when a vulnerable population, jail inmates, are subjected to abuse,” said Bruce Brown, 5th Judicial District Attorney. “Cutting corners is not an option when it comes to the rights of persons either accused or convicted of a crime,” Brown added.
The Fifth Judicial District is comprised of the Counties of Lake, Clear Creek, Summit and Lake. Lake County is a small rural community located in the central Colorado mountains, with a population of 7,800. The Judicial District has had a standing Grand Jury since 2014 and has issued several indictments in other matters.
Generally, as a result of an investigation by a State Grand Jury an indictment or report can issue on matters of public importance involving public official misconduct. This investigation is an example of official misconduct but was not deemed criminal. The involved personnel have all since left the Sheriff’s office.
The Fifth Judicial District Grand Jury continues to regularly conduct investigations and issue indictments and reports. The District Attorney’s office appreciates the conscientious dedication demonstrated by the Grand Jury, devoting extraordinary time to their duty. The identify of grand jurors remains secret to assure that this and future investigations are conducted without interference.
To learn more about Grand Juries and read the complete grand jury report visit: CONNECT HERE.
Former Sheriff Fenske Talks Jail
On October 16, 2017 Colorado’s 5th Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown held a “Law Enforcement Town Hall Meeting” in cooperation with the Leadville Police Department and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office at Lake County High School in Leadville, Colorado. In this video, the discussion turns to Sheriff Fenske, who reports on the Lake County Jail problems, and where the Lake County Justice Center proposal is after residents voted it down in 2016. Local proponents for the Lake County Justice Center are currently gearing up for the next campaign to hit the ballot in 2020. At present, Lake County does not have an operating jail.