As battles with the state over expected budget cuts and cost shifts continue, Pima County officials say court programs designed to reduce recidivism could face substantial cuts.
“It’s the worst possible public policy,” said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
Huckelberry has been critical of the recently passed Arizona budget, which he says pushes the costs of many services traditionally paid by the state onto the counties, potentially forcing Pima County to absorb as much as $23 million in additional costs starting in July.
“Historically, during the great recession, we’ve always held justice and law enforcement harmless,” Huckelberry said.
But he said that likely won’t be possible with the latest round of state cuts because justice and law enforcement consume as much as 60 percent of the county’s general fund. Taking all of the cuts from the other 40 percent of government is unrealistic, he said.
“I don’t want to do it,” he said of the public safety cuts. “I don’t think it’s logical, but frankly we don’t have any other options.”
Superior Court received $31.6 million in general fund support this year and Juvenile Court $23.6 million. The two courts are bracing for up to $6 million in cuts next year.
Court officials say that could mean slashing or eliminating many specialty courts, pretrial services and numerous juvenile diversion programs which are not mandated programs.
“The county attorney is deeply concerned,” said Amelia Craig Cramer, chief deputy Pima County attorney.
Cramer said the programs and specialty courts facing the budget ax have helped reduce recidivism rates and saved taxpayers money by reducing court costs and keeping many nonviolent offenders out of jails and prisons.
Pretrial services, for example, allows adult defendants to remain out of jail under close supervision if they are deemed low risk of absconding or reoffending.
“Many of these low-risk offenders don’t need to be in jail,” said Pima County Superior Court Presiding Judge Sarah Simmons. “The less time they spend in jail, the less likely they will be to recidivate.”
The county also operates a drug court that allows felony drug offenders to enter deferred judgment programs, in which they enter into plea agreements requiring participation in drug treatment, skills training and staying off drugs.
If they complete the program, their charges can be reduced or dropped.
Drugs account for about 30 percent of the 6,000 cases heard in Superior Court each year. Nearly half of all drug offenders who end up in prison reoffend within four years of their release.
About 300 defendants participate in drug court each year, and court officials said about half of them complete the program. Without the program, officials estimate 80 percent of the defendants would go to prison.
Drug court costs for the current budget year are estimated to be $802,000.
A related program called Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison allows many charged with drug possession to enter into treatment, followed by intensive probation.
A 2013 analysis of the program estimated the cost per participant was $15,123, while the same offenders would cost $34,529 annually in incarceration- related costs.
Also financially threatened is mental health court, a program through which defendants eligible for probation can apply to have their case transferred to the mental health court, where treatment and other goals are set for them.
Annual costs associated with mental health court total about $225,000.
“It takes a little bit of money now to save more money down the road,” Cramer said. “Sick people are not going to be made better by going to prison.”
The potential loss of diversion programs in Juvenile Court is seen as the most troubling.
“I think the success of diversion programs at Juvenile Court are related directly to a reduction in juvenile delinquency,” Simmons said.
Since 2004, the average daily occupancy at Pima County Juvenile Detention Center has fallen from about 175 to about 40.
The number of juveniles sent to the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections from Pima County also has fallen from nearly 100 in 2004 to about 30 now.
Court officials credit the numerous diversion programs offered through Pima County Juvenile Court like Family Drug Court, Domestic Violence Alternative Center, Youth Recovery Court and mediation programs with the drop in youth crime.
“When they’re in diversion, there’s an uncovering of what the underlying problems are,” Cramer said.
These programs often require parents or guardians to participate in therapy and other activities with the juvenile offender, which Cramer said increases the likelihood of success.
“Having this wrap-around approach when you have schools, parents and the kids involved, we have better outcomes,” Melanie Taylor, a professor of criminology at the University of Nevada-Reno, said of the comprehensive approach the county has taken.
Taylor said many states began to move toward a more punitive approach to juvenile justice in the 1970s and 1980s, but beginning in the 1990s and 2000s, the philosophy changed.
Taylor said many states began to place juvenile offenders in smaller facilities and group-home settings closer to their families rather than in large, centralized state prison facilities.
“It’s better for kids to be housed closer to home,” she said. “We find that it’s more rehabilitative.”
While the county has followed that trend, Huckelberry said that could change in the face of budgetary strains.
The new state budget requires the county to pay 25 percent of the costs of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections — or about $1.8 million.
The ultimate result of the state cuts is likely to mean the county sends more juveniles to the state corrections system, Huckelberry said.
That’s not the county’s preferred option, he said, but, “The state has created the incentive to not do diversion and simply send these kids to the state.”
In a memo to Huckelberry, Simmons wrote that the community can expect to see more arrests, more people sent to jail and prison and greater recidivism rates if the programs are eliminated.
“That’s an enormous cost to the county,” Simmons said.