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Conover reverses, will resume drug charges after Pima jail numbers stay high

'My plan for keeping people away from this dangerous crowding has been undermined.'

Saying that her policy to reduce crowding and decrease COVID-19 risks at the jail was "undermined," Pima County Attorney Laura Conover said her office will resume filing charges in minor drug cases, in order to direct people to treatment via court.

The "attempt to drive down the jail population failed to make a significant difference," her office said Wednesday.

Conover had announced in mid-December that Pima prosecutors would no longer bring misdemeanor or felony charges in simple drug possession, paraphernalia, or related personal-use incidents, although cases that also involved other felonies would still be filed. The policy was intended to decrease the number of people detained at the jail awaiting trial, and reduce the spread of COVID-19 among detainees, inmates and staff.

Conover had asked that local law enforcement agencies instead "deflect people to drug treatment."

Conover told the Tucson Sentinel that officers and deputies were still arresting people, despite the no-charges policy, and taking them to the jail where they would be held until prosecutors affirmed that charges would not be filed.

"And then they're in 'the pit' for hours; it defeated the purpose" of the policy, she told the Sentinel.

Wednesday, the county's top prosecutor reversed her stance on charges in such cases.

"True leadership requires a coming together to review data and then an admission when a pilot project is not working.  I’ll say it better. My December attempt to reduce the jail population was unsuccessful," she wrote to area chiefs of police.

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From a memo she sent to law enforcement leaders Wednesday:

1. The jail population was at 1,671 on December 14, 2021 - the day of my memo and was at 1,673 today.  This isn’t an anomaly; this has been a consistent number for the jail population, as I watched it on a daily basis. 

2. I believe we have a shared interest with law enforcement in exploring deflection, but unfortunately it seems this approach is not widely used.  Many people are still arrested and transported into the “pit” of the jail and held in tight quarters with other inmates and staff for hours awaiting the dismissal of simple possession charges. Thus, my plan for keeping people away from this dangerous crowding as a public health risk has been undermined.

3. The jail remains a potential super-spreader site. Sheriff Nanos, who wholeheartedly agrees with this evaluation and with my consternation, is dealing with some 200 inmates held on unspeakably violent crimes and trying to also manage non-violent sick people who should not be in the jail at all and are at risk for violence, and illness, and overdose.

The purpose of December's "declination" memo was to prevent those suffering from substance-use disorder from being taken to the jail during the  pandemic, reducing the risk of transmission, the Pima County Attorney's Office said. 

"However, vulnerable people were still being transported to the jail, where they spent hours in a holding area known as "the pit," in cramped conditions, before PCAO deputy prosecutors could dismiss their charges," officials said.

While Tucson Police Department officers generally work to deflect people to treatment, Sheriff's Department deputies and officers from Marana, Oro Valley and Sahuarita continued to make arrests and take people to the jail for offenses that would not be charged under the policy.

The suburban departments "do not and will not support deflection any time soon I fear," Conover said, noting that some officers were likely not informed of the policy shift.

"Charging people with a criminal offense has never succeeded in reducing the number of people who suffer from substance abuse, and has never succeeded in reducing crime associated with substance abuse," said Joel Feinman, head of the county Public Defender's Office.

"It is a public and mental health issue, not a criminal justice issue, and until we treat it as such we will never make meaningful progress on the issue," said Feinman, who has announced that he's resigning in May.

Pima County Superior Court has several programs for people arrested for crimes involving drugs, including STEPS (Supportive Treatment and Intervention Program) for people who haven't yet been indicted, Drug Court for those convicted of offenses and who suffer substance use disorder, and Drug Treatment as an Alternative to Prison (DTAP), which gives people a chance to avoid prison via specialized probation.

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