City Council gets progress report on inmate reduction program

Tucson City Council discussed the progress of multiple initiatives recommended by a statewide task force that are designed to decrease the population of local jails.

The “Justice for All” report, compiled by the Arizona Supreme Court’s Task Force on Fair Justice for All: Court-Ordered Fines, Penalties, Fees, and Pretrial Policies, was released on Sept. 1, 2016.

The report recommended alternative options for non-violent offenders awaiting pretrial services including:

  • Statutory changes for setting and collecting court-ordered payments, as well as potential waiving of fines
  • Offer payment options for people who cannot afford to pay court fines, and allow more community service based repayment
  • Recommend the best practices for releasing non-violent civil offenders, while maintaining public safety
  • Review and consider alternatives to the current driver’s license suspension policy
  • Recommend educational programs for judicial officers, judges and court staff responsible for the pretrial decision-making process
  • Identify and enhance technological notification services for defendants, which can reduce the amount of those who fail to appear in court and possibly encourage defendants to appear

Christopher Hale, court administrator at Tucson City Court, said the city could quickly implement 17 of the 65 recommendations made by the task force’s report, according to city documents. Eight of the improvements were put into effect immediately, while others are still being worked on.

Amelia Cramer, Chief Deputy at the Pima County Attorney’s office, presented an update on the initiatives aimed at quelling overcrowding in the Pima County jail.

Pima County recently received a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a national endowment designed to help reduce over-incarceration by providing support for local jurisdictions to create fairer judicial practices, which helped finance some the county’s new programs.

The county was awarded $1.5 million for the next two years from the MacArthur Foundation grant, the option to extend the financial award for a third year has yet to be determined.

Cramer came across two cases that epitomized the need for Pima County to take part in this program about two years ago, she said.

The first case concerned a severely mentally ill woman who spent 45 days in jail, because a bench warrant had been issued for her arrest for failure to appear in court. The woman was originally charged with a misdemeanor for stealing a candy bar, she said.

During that same week, a man from Northwest Tucson shot rounds through his front door at Tucson Police Department officers, she said, and was released the next day on a $150,000 cash bond. This defendant was wealthy enough to post bail, Cramer said.

“We need more safety, in terms of those who are violent and dangerous predators in our community, to make sure they are in custody,” Cramer said. “And we need more justice for those who are poor, and can’t afford to post bail.”

In 2014, Pima County jail was housing almost 2,300 inmates, Cramer said, and the overall capacity of the facility is 2,377. According to county projections, Pima County jail will see an 18 percent increase of inmates by 2020, which would place the number of county inmates at about 2,800, she said.

“And you all, Mayor and Council, are well familiar with the costs of the current jail, can you imagine how much greater those costs would be if the county had to build yet another jail,” she said. “So the county began looking for ways in which to reduce the jail population in a manner that would be safe, and also ensure justice.”

The county recently determined that more than 80 percent of inmates housed in Pima County jail have not been sentenced, Cramer said. Although inmates in jail and prison are often erroneously lumped together, the two populations are quite different, she added.

When the county began implementing their automated reminder system, there was a 24 percent decrease in defendants failing to appear in court. The city is planning in rolling out its own Interactive Voice Response system, which will offer reminders in both English or Spanish via a mobile alert.

Council Member Richard Fimbres, a Democrat of Ward 5, asked Cramer what is being done to combat recidivism.

Council Member Regina Romero, a Democrat of Ward 1, further asked Cramer whether the MacArthur provides bias training for law enforcement and judges, which can prevent cultural discrimination for peace officers in the field and presiding judges.

Cramer said there are efforts being made, at the city and county level, to recognize and reduce implicit bias for law enforcement and within the criminal justice system.

Hale, court administrator at Tucson City Court, said city court is an innovator and leader regarding limited jurisdiction courts, which is why they were able to immediately implement some of the improvements recommended by the statewide task force.

For example, Tucson City Court hasn’t issued a failure to pay warrant in at least 10 years, Hale said. “We’ve just been ahead of the curve for a long time, and I just wanted to make that clear.”

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