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Pima County, YWCA get $500k MacArthur grant to fight racism in justice system

A $500,000 grant will support work by Pima County and the YWCA to reduce the number of people in jail, and end racial inequities in the local justice system.

The MacArthur Foundation funding is part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a $300 million initiative to reduce jail populations in the United States. More than $1.5 million has been already been awarded to Pima County for criminal justice system reform work.

The county's Justice Services Department will use a $239,000 MacArthur grant accepted by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday and join the Racial Equity Cohort, a program in the focuses on disparities in the justice system. The money will fund two years of work by Pima County, alongside the four other local governments in the group.

YWCA Southern Arizona was awarded $261,151 as a community partner with the county. The nonprofit runs Pima County Teen Court, a non-government, peer-led juvenile diversion program, which officials say has lowered the risk of recidivism for nearly 8,000 teens. About 60 percent of participants are racial or ethnic minorities.

The county will use the largest portion of the grant to fund a “justice data warehouse” that collects and manages information that can be used to “identify, measure and track racial and ethnic disparities and disproportionalities” in the local justice system. That work will cost $100,000 in the first year, and $50,000 in the second year.

The YWCA will carry out a community engagement strategy that includes hosting at least six “Dialogues to Create Change” events in the next 15 months. These events are intended to solicit input from communities that have been “historically ignored” such as migrant activists and anti-poverty groups, according to the grant application. The county and YWCA will hire part-time liaisons to help them with this process.

The community engagement work will also target the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a trend of strict discipline policies in public schools resulting in students who become adults who remain involved in the justice system, often serving time in jail. That phenomenon most often affects people of color.

Pima County has also earmarked $50,000 to deliver microgrants over their two-year term to grassroots organizations and residents impacted directly by inequities in the justice system. The county plans to give $25,000 in each year of the term.

The mix of a data-driven approach and a community engagement strategy is critical for impactful reform, said Kate Vesely, director of Justice Services for the county. Officials have been working to undo systemic inequities that have been present for generations, she said in a statement, saying “we must listen to the stories of those who have been impacted in some way by the justice system and look closely at what stories the data is trying to tell us."

“We recognize that it has taken generations to manifest the inequity and biases we see in our society today,” she said. “Pima County has already taken steps toward developing a more equitable justice system, but to truly create the systemic change that will improve our community for generations to come we must begin the most difficult work.”

The county and YWCA consider the community engagement side to be key to accomplishing concrete reform, Magdalena Verdugo, CEO of YWCA Southern Arizona, said in the statement.

“We understand that real change takes deep listening, trust-building and figuring out systems that often perpetuate inequality,” Verdugo said. “Being at the table and having the opportunity to work with Pima County Justice Services is a good and right step toward system change.”

Laurie Garduque, the MacArthur Foundation’s director of criminal justice, said “by pairing the leadership of people most impacted by mass incarceration with the expertise of government partners, we hope this cohort of jurisdictions will challenge systemic racism in our justice systems and create policies and practices to sustain long-term change.”

One other county and two cities that are working alongside the county and YWCA the Racial Equity Cohort: Cook County, Illinois — home to Chicago and the second most populous county in the U.S., behind Los Angeles County — and the cities of New Orleans and Philadelphia.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards grants to “creative people and effective institutions,” according to their website. They’re well-known for their “genius grants,” a informal name given to their $625,000 fellowships that can be freely spent by individuals who are talented in fields like the arts, science or activism, among others. The $500,000 grant the county and YWCA is accepting is part of a third round of MacArthur funding, which started in 2016 as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge.

The Pima County Department of Justice Services is a new department, established last summer as a permanent continuation of the Criminal Justice Reform Unit, a smaller program with the same goal of reducing jail populations and systemic inequalities. The YWCA, or Young Woman’s Christian Association, has 207 sister organizations around the country dedicated to “eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.”

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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