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  • County participating in Safety & Justice Challenge

    There are more people in local jails than there are people in prison in the United States. More than 60 percent of them haven’t been convicted of a crime and their incarceration costs taxpayers millions of dollars.

    Pima County’s 2,377-bed jail is frequently near capacity, and the County estimates that by the year 2020, the detainee population could reach nearly 2,800 without intervention.

    Pima County officials realize there is an incalculable cost to families when people lose their jobs and are torn away from their loved ones. As a result, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and jail officials have been sitting at the table with defense attorneys, judges and other county officials to find ways to ease over-crowding.

    In May, Pima County received a $150,000 Safety + Justice Challenge Grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Foundation wants Americans to change the way they think about jails and it has pledged $75 million to aid local governments in coming up with a better system.

    Since May, criminal justice system officials and Justice System Partners, a consulting firm, have gathered data to determine who is being arrested and incarcerated locally and at what point in the criminal justice system those decisions were made.

    The data confirmed many of the problems that exist on the national level also exist in Pima County, said Assistant Pima County Administrator Ellen Wheeler.

    A disproportionate number of poor people are arrested and incarcerated along with a disproportionate number of people of color, Wheeler said. In addition, a high percentage of the people in jail are mentally ill or drug addicted.

    No matter what role they play in the criminal justice system, committee members have committed themselves to addressing the inequities and reducing the jail’s overcrowding, Wheeler said.

    “We all see that there are better alternatives than jail for people with substance abuse and mental health issues,” Wheeler said. “We recognize that jail is not going to make these people better.”

    As a result, Pima County is pursuing another grant from the MacArthur Foundation so specific strategies can be put into place to lower the jail population. If the Foundation awards the grant, the County could receive between $1 million and $4 million over the course of two years, with a possible one-year extension.

    Pima County will be competing with the 19 other jurisdictions who also received grants in May. They, too, have been partnered with criminal justice consultants as they develop strategies.

    The County held a series of meetings the week of Oct. 26 to discuss some of the reasons behind the jail’s high population and ways to lower the numbers.

    Jessie Warner and Charlene Rhyne, associates from Justice System Partners, facilitated the series of meetings with community stakeholders and the Safety + Justice Challenge committee members.

    The group identified a handful of strategies they hope can ease jail overcrowding and in the coming weeks will be striving to further develop those strategies for inclusion in the grant application.

    Potential solutions include:

    • Extending court hours and locations
    • Sending text reminders about court dates
    • Creating a Restorative Justice Center where defendants can take care of their criminal matters, meet with treatment providers, obtain job skills, etc.
    • Give law enforcement officers more discretion in the field as to arrests
    • Change the bail process
    • Expedite case processing
    • Create additional diversion programs

    Wheeler couldn’t be more pleased with the work that has been done.

    “There’s been a remarkable level of cooperation and collaboration among the various parts of the criminal justice system and there’s been a real commitment on the part of the leadership in the system,” Wheeler said. “Everyone is willing to look hard at the data and to make changes to improve the system.”

    The grant application is due Jan. 6.

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    Safety + Justice Challenge Grant

    Wendy Petersen
    Assistant County Administrator
    (520) 724-8849

    Kate Vesely
    Director of Justice Reform Initiatives
    (520) 724-3062

    32 N. Stone Ave.
    3rd Floor
    Tucson, AZ 85701

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