County gets $1.5M to lower jail population

Corrections officer Alyssa Burgos fingerprints an inmate. The county got a $1.5 million grant to cut its jail population.

Pima County has been awarded a $1.5 million grant to reduce its jail population and address racial disparities in the local justice system.

The goal of the funds from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is to reduce the “main drivers” of the county’s jail population and thereby lower that population by 18 percent in three years, the county said Tuesday in a news release.

“The way we misuse and overuse jails in this country takes an enormous toll on our social fabric and undermines the credibility of government action, with particularly dire consequences for communities of color,” Julia Stasch, president of the MacArthur Foundation, said in the release.

The reforms allowed by the grant funds are a “fantastic idea” that will help more county residents avoid jail and keep their jobs, said Lori Lefferts, director of the county’s public defense services.

“Everybody shares the vision that we stop putting people in jail that don’t need to be there,” she said.

One of the aims of the grant funds is to lower the number of people who end up in jail on warrants for failing to appear in court on misdemeanor charges, which came to about 10,000 in 2014, the county said.

To address that issue, the grant money will be used to create a court-date reminder system and open the courts on weekends to help people resolve warrants.

Another target of the funds is to expand the county’s system of home detention through electronic monitoring, which allows people to keep their jobs and reduces jail costs.

The county plans to spend about $650,000 over the course of two years on electronic-monitoring services for home detention and work release, said Assistant County Administrator Ellen Wheeler.

Monitoring people on home detention costs the county $15 daily, compared with $85 per day to house inmates in the jail, she said.

In addition to benefiting the community by allowing people to keep their jobs and lessen impacts on families, the reforms made possible by the grant will help save the county money, she said.

The average daily population at the county jail in 2014 was 2,136, she said. The jail is considered at full capacity with 2,377 inmates.

By lowering the jail population by 18 percent — which amounts to 381 inmates and nearly six housing pods — the county stands to save between $2.3 million and $2.7 million annually, Wheeler said.

The grant funds also will be used to help non-violent offenders who suffer from mental illness or drug addiction avoid going to jail. The county estimated about half of the people in the jail in 2014 suffered from various degrees of mental illness.

The grant funds will allow the county to screen people for mental illness and substance abuse when they arrive at jail, County Attorney Barbara LaWall said in the news release.

“Those who do not pose a danger to the community can then be released to treatment facilities where they can be better served and adequately supervised while awaiting trial,” LaWall said.

The grant also tackles racial disparities in the local justice system.

In Pima County, African-Americans account for 3.3 percent of the local population and 9.6 percent of the county jail population, the county said.

Hispanics make up 35 percent of the local population and 40.7 percent of the jail population. Native Americans are 2.4 percent of the local population and 6.75 percent of the jail population.

“There can be bias in the system, even when all the actors are well-intentioned,” Lefferts said.

Authorities need to “be mindful of it and eliminate it,” she said.

The grant will go toward training on “implicit bias,” understanding disparities, and using data monitoring and performance assessments to measure the effectiveness of the program, the county said.

Pima County received an initial grant of $150,000 last May from the MacArthur Foundation to develop plans to reform the local justice system.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or

On Twitter: @CurtTucsonStar