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$1.5 million grant to help reduce Pima jail population

Most inmates are awaiting trial

Enhanced pretrial screening, substance abuse and mental health treatment options and more electronic monitoring are part of a plan to help cut the occupancy of the Pima County jail by almost 20 percent over the next three years. The $3.1 million project will be supported by a $1.5 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The plan should allow the county to eventually shutter six 64-person pods at the jail, and save about $2.7 million annually, foundation officials said.

The grant "will enable Pima County to screen all arrestees as soon as they come into the jail to see whether they suffer from mental illness, or drug and alcohol addiction, or both," Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall said in a news release. "Those who do not pose a danger to the community can then be released to treatment facilities where they can be better served and adequately supervised while awaiting trial."

The grant is the result of "a lot of hard work by a lot of good people ... a true collaborative effort," said Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos, naming LaWall, Corrections Chief India Davis, Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison program head Kate Lawson, Superior Court Judge Kyle Bryson and Assistant County Administrator Ellen Wheeler.

The Chicago-based foundation announced that Pima County was one of 11 jurisdictions across the country to receive grants from the Safety and Justice Challenge this year. The county will "invest in strategies that will further reduce the average daily jail population over the next three years," the foundation said.

"The county will seek to safely reduce its jail population through: risk screening for all misdemeanor defendants in order to increase post-booking releases from jail; diverting nonviolent individuals with substance abuse or mental health issues to post-booking treatment instead of jail; an enhanced automated call, text and email court-date reminder system that is expected to reduce failure to appear rates; and detention alternatives made possible through electronic monitoring technology," the foundation said.

The measures could reduce the jail population by 18 percent.

In 2014, more than 10,000 people were jailed on warrants for failure to appear in court, with more than 93 percent of that group initially arrested on misdemeanor charges.

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"If the jail population can be reduced then certainly there will be a savings," Nanos said. "Just the simple use of electronic monitors can save $70 a day per inmate."

"We still have a large number of inmates who are released daily to go to work," the sheriff said. "They are not on electronic monitors and no one verifies their whereabouts...it's an honor system."

"Remember, these are low-level inmates who are already released into the community on a daily basis," he said.

The grant also "will deal with other issues involving pre-booking and post-booking" handling of inmates, Nanos said, but "electronic monitoring should and could be in place today."

"If these inmates were put on the electronic monitors there would be better accountability as to their whereabouts, and for that matter, instead of having them return to the jail at taxpayer expense, they could just go home at night," Nanos said. "The county wouldn't have to feed them or pay for their medical."

Nanos poked a bit at the city of Tucson's recent decision to send some inmates sentenced out of City Court to Santa Cruz County to serve their sentences.

Tucson "sends inmates to Santa Cruz for a savings of what, maybe $20 (per day), when if they just put electronic monitors on them they could save more than three times that amount," Nanos said.

"I agree with their effort to try and reduce jail costs, I just believe they could do a better job of using technology to increase efficiency," he said, acknowledging that the county could do the same.

Last year, the county was awarded a $150,000 MacArthur Foundation planning grant to examine ways to reduce recidivism rates and the overall number of jail inmates.

In Pima County, more than 80 percent of jail inmates are awaiting trial. Mental illness and substance abuse affect about 60 percent of those who are jailed here.

The county was picked from among 191 applications, submitted by jurisdictions in 45 states.

"The way we misuse and over-use jails in this country takes an enormous toll on our social fabric and undermines the credibility of government action, with particularly dire consequences for communities of color," said MacArthur President Julia Stasch. "The thoughtful plans and demonstrable political will give us confidence that these jurisdictions will show that change is possible in even the most intractable justice-related challenges in cities, counties, and states across the country."

The 11 core jurisdictions in the program, with each receiving $1.5 million to $3.5 million in funding, are:

  • Charleston County, S.C.
  • Harris County, Texas
  • Lucas County, Ohio
  • Milwaukee County, Wis.
  • New Orleans, La.
  • New York City, N.Y.
  • Philadelphia, Pa.
  • Pima County
  • Spokane County, Wash.
  • State of Connecticut
  • St. Louis County, Mo.

Nine other jail systems will receive $150,000 planning grants from MacArthur this year.

From the foundation:

Despite growing national attention to the large number of Americans confined in state and federal prisons, significantly less attention has been paid to the local level, where the criminal justice system primarily operates and where over-incarceration begins. Jail populations have more than tripled since the 1980s, as have the cumulative costs of building and running them. Nationwide misuse of jails most harshly impacts low-income communities and communities of color. For example, while African Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of Americans, they make up 51 percent of the U.S. jail population. Today, one in three Americans believes his or her local justice system is unfair, according to a poll conducted by Zogby Analytics and supported by the Foundation. MacArthur launched the Safety and Justice Challenge in February 2015 to address these issues by creating fairer, more effective local justice systems and spurring national demand for reform.

Several of the nation's leading criminal justice organizations will provide technical assistance and counsel to the jurisdictions: the Center for Court Innovation, Institute for State and Local Governance at the City University of New York, Justice Management Institute, Justice System Partners, Vera Institute of Justice, Pretrial Justice Institute, and W. Haywood Burns Institute.

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The Pima County Adult Detention Center