Pima County Gets Grant to Reduce Jail Population

Pima County, seeking to reduce the number of people in its often near-capacity jail, has been awarded a $150,000 grant designed to help reduce recidivism and incarceration.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation selected Pima County and 19 other jurisdictions around the country to participate in the first phase of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a $75 million initiative to improve local justice systems. The county was among almost 200 applicants for the grants.

In the next phase of the challenge, 10 out of the 20 counties will receive a grant of $500,000 to $2 million over two years to implement their plan.

Pima County will use the initial grant to develop a strategic plan to reduce the number of people who go to jail without compromising public safety, the chief deputy county attorney, Amelia Cramer, said.

The Pima County jail, with close to 2,400 beds, is frequently near capacity.

The county has already started to implement innovative programs to improve its justice system, and that is what appealed to the foundation, Ms. Cramer said. For example, she said, the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison program is the only one of its kind in Arizona.

The first step in developing the plan will be to evaluate the inmate data and map out each step that might occur when a person is detained to when the person is incarcerated.

The county will centralize the information from the various departments of the local justice system, said Ellen Wheeler, assistant county administrator.

Organizing the data will permit the county to identify the 35,000 to 40,000 people who are sent to jail each year, said India Davis, assistant corrections administrator at the Sheriff’s Department.

County figures show that 46 percent of adults sent to jail live below the poverty line, and 58 percent of those arrested are from minority populations. But, Ms. Davis said, the county will need more specific information about the inmate population to develop the action plan. She said the county needs to know if the inmates are homeless, have mental health issues or need employment services. That way, she said, the county will be able to “push resources toward the population that is in need.”

The next step will be to find places in the system where preventing incarceration is possible, Ms. Wheeler said, “to identify spots where we could maybe do things differently so that a person does not end up in jail if it would be safe to release that person.”

For instance, she said, some offenses are fairly minor and can be handled with a citation instead of an arrest. There are also people who can safely be released but are incarcerated while waiting for trial.

The county will also identify instances where it can intervene to help inmates who face mental health problems or substance abuse, so that they leave jail in good condition. Ms. Wheeler said it would reduce re-incarceration by helping them to “break the cycle of getting into trouble.” Social services are often offered to people who are on probation, but not to those who are still in jail, she said.

The county will also explore ways to get all inmates enrolled in health care and to ensure they stay enrolled once they are released, Ms. Davis said.

“We want to make sure that when they are in jail they get the medication they need to stabilize them,” she said, “so that when they get out they are not in bad shape and continue to be insured. It is vital for these people to be healthier in the future.”

The last step of the challenge’s first phase will be to lay out the implementation plan, which the county will submit in January to be considered for the next round of funding.