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Pima County Attorney to stop prosecuting simple drug cases, citing COVID

Sheriff Nanos hopes directing more drug offenders to treatment is long-term policy

With COVID-19 cases again spiking, Pima County Attorney Laura Conover announced Tuesday that she'll no longer be prosecuting many drug cases, to avoid potential exposures in the county jail. Cases that involve other felonies will still be brought, she said.

The move to not bring charges against anyone for simple drug possession, paraphernalia, or related personal-use incidents means local law enforcement officers should "deflect people to drug treatment" rather than arrest them and bring them to the Adult Detention Center, she said.

Taking people to the jail results in "risking their health, the health of jail staff, and the health of the interior jail population," the Pima County Attorney's Office said.

"A sizeable percentage of the population has expressed disinterest in the vaccine, depriving us of the herd immunity that would have put this virus behind us," Conover wrote in a memo sent to law enforcement officials. "COVID is now spreading inside the jail, putting people there at risk. The health and safety of our community are paramount."

Nearly 500 people have died from COVID-19 in Arizona over the past week, with more than 22,000 new confirmed infections reported. The virus has become the leading killer of law enforcement officers in the country.

Under the new policy, charges will still be brought against people who have been arrested for simple possession and another felony offense, such as burglary, Conover said. PCAO said that the decision is similar to one made by Conover's predecessor in office, Barbara LaWall, in the early days of the pandemic in March 2020.

"In the meantime, YOUR AGENCIES SHOULD DEFLECT PEOPLE TO DRUG TREATMENT," Conover wrote, capitalizing and underlining that line of her memo. "CODAC is available 24/71365. The Crisis Response Center (CRC) is just minutes from the jail and equally accessible; certainly, some high number of encounters on the street are with people who are self-medicating a mental illness and are appropriate for CRC evaluation. As I have indicated many times. I am ready to set up emergency deflection training for your agencies. Consider this an option during this time."

The cases that won't be prosecuted include drug possession that could be charged as felonies, so long as other non-drug felony charges are not involved, PCAO spokesman Joe Watson confirmed.

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PCAO's new charging policy will be reviewed in 60 days.

Sheriff Chris Nanos, faced with a large number of employees at the jail who have so far refused to comply with a mandate to get vaccinated against COVID-19, told Tucson Sentinel that he welcoms the move to not send low-level drug offenders into the detention center.

"They shouldn't be in there," he said of many offenders, some of whom Nanos said could be otherwise dealt with by using ankle monitors instead of incarceration.

"But this shouldn't be a process in response to a pandemic; this should be something (they're) doing because they talked to the citizens about it and ran on that platform," Nanos said.

PCSD deputies won't stop arresting people for possession of narcotics, Nanos said, but will work to defer more people to treatment.

People arrested for basic drug offenses are often dealing with addiction and mental illness, said the sheriff, and should be in a medical facility rather than the jail.

"There are people better trained" to deal with those issues than his corrections officers, he said.

There are about 370 corrections officers at the Pima County Adult Detention Center, and they have all been mandated to get their COVID vaccinations because they work with the "vulnerable population" of incarcerated people.

Last week, about 200 of those employees had yet to get their shots, county data showed.

By the beginning of this week, about 150 still had not done so, Nanos told the Sentinel, with some additional staffers reporting daily that they've gotten vaccinated.

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"We had 20-some more report that they've done it today," he said, calling on the remaining hold-outs to "quit playing politics."

Those who don't get their shots before the end of the year will be terminated under the policy established by the Board of Supervisors.

The Sheriff's Department has "contingency plans — we know the exact number it takes to run that facility," he said. "Is it optimal? No. But we can do it."

Even if the policy of not prosecuting some drug cases results in a lower number of people in the jail, both those awaiting trial and those serving their sentences, that doesn't mean that PCSD can have fewer guards and other staffers, Nanos said.

"We have needed positions" and minimum staffing levels that are required "unless the place is empty," he said.

Monday, Nanos sent his staff a memo to reinforce that the county's policy is not a "bluff."

"The consequences have been laid out. The line in the sand has been drawn and the clock is ticking. I implore you to do the right thing," Nanos wrote in a memo to PCSD staff released Monday afternoon. "Do what is right for your families, your loved ones and the preservation of your lifestyle. More importantly, do what is right for yourself and get vaccinated."

Termination notices were being delivered to those staffers — mostly corrections officers at the jail — over last week and into this week, with employees still able to get their shots and comply with the vaccination mandate before they are fired.

The process of informing unvaccinated county staffers who refuse to get their shots has begun as the pandemic is again resurgent in Arizona. More than 23,500 new infections have been reported in the state in the past week, with more than 450 additional deaths from the virus. The requirement for county workers to be vaccinated does not cover PCSD deputies, who were not deemed to work with vulnerable populations. Since the pandemic began, COVID-19 has become the nation's leading cause of death for law enforcement officers.

Nanos told his staffers that it "saddens me" that some people are "misleading" them by persuading them to not be vaccinated.

482 deaths, 22k new cases in Arizona over past week

There were 203 additional deaths and 2,168 new confirmed COVID-19 infections reported in Arizona on Tuesday, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services.

36 of the new deaths and 293 new cases were in Pima County.

On Monday, there were 2,391 new confirmed COVID-19 infections reported in Arizona.

Friday, there were 93 additional deaths from COVID-19 reported in Arizona, with 3,924 new confirmed infections, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services. Sunday, there were 19 additional deaths and 3,231 new cases. Saturday, there were 74 more new deaths and 3,774 additional reported cases.

Last week, there were 75 deaths and 3,663 new cases Thursday, and 18 deaths and 3,503 new infections on Wednesday. Last Tuesday, there were 172 new reported deaths and 3,015 new cases, with 3,022 new cases last Monday.

More than 3,000 Pima County residents have died from the disease, with more than 23,200 Arizonans dead from COVID since the beginning of the pandemic.

Unvaccinated people in Arizona have been more than 15 times more likely to die than fully vaccinated people who got COVID-19, ADHS officials said, based on data from October.

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Arizona hospitals continue to be overwhelmed, in large part because of patients with COVID-19 who are not vaccinated. In Pima County this week, there were only six intensive care beds available for new patients in all area hospitals.

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