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Countywide effort reduces jail population in bid to reduce coronavirus spread in Tucson

Countywide effort reduces jail population in bid to reduce coronavirus spread in Tucson

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

A corrections officer walks past cells in the female mental health unit at the Pima County Jail, 1270 W. Silverlake Road, on September 14, 2018.

An effort to release some inmates and put fewer people behind bars for minor offenses has significantly reduced the population in Tucson’s jail, officials say.

Pima County jail’s average inmate population has dropped by almost 500 inmates since early March. That reduction, from an average of almost 2,000 inmates a day to 1,491 as of Tuesday afternoon, is due to a collective effort from law enforcement, courts, criminal attorneys to cutback on the jail population to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Having fewer inmates frees space to properly quarantine inmates if they get sick, helping to prevent a virus outbreak.

The jail has not had any cases of coronavirus among staff or inmates, said Deputy Marissa Hernandez, a Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman.

Since mid-march law enforcement officials were directed to find ways to limit the amount of people booked into jail.

That effort is one of many reasons the jail population has successfully been reduced, Chief Deputy Pima County Attorney Amelia Cramer said.

The Pima County Attorney’s Office also is temporarily declining to charge anyone for simple possession of drugs for personal use, eliminating the need for arrests on such non-violent crimes.

Meanwhile, Pima County Superior Court’s presiding judge gave pretrial services the authority to decide whether defendants in misdemeanor cases should be released, excluding those accused in domestic-violence cases, Cramer said.

Pretrial services employees review information about the arrest and the person’s criminal history before making that decision.

Jail bookings have been reduced by about 50% since these efforts started, Cramer said.

In late March, the Pima County Public Defender’s Office worked with the County Attorney’s Office to identify defendants who could be released from custody by removing bail requirements in cases where releasing them would not endanger the public.

Pima County Public Defender Joel Feinman also requested consideration for defendants with low-level felonies who were not dangerous or violent, including those charged with simple-drug possession.

Of an initial list from the public defender’s office of 145 inmates, 14 were released on March 27 and another 15 were released on April 3.

Some pretrial defendants had already been released due to individual actions by their lawyers by the time the courts reviewed the list, Feinman said.

Public defenders continue to file motions seeking the release of inmates on a case-by-case basis, Feinman said. Though public defenders have worked to try to get some clients released from jail regardless of a public health crisis, those efforts have been sped up because of the pandemic, Feinman said.

Looking at other cases involving jails and prisons across the country, like in Cook County, Chicago and Riker’s Island in New York, where coronavirus outbreaks have been reported among staffers and inmates, jails and prisons are places where coronavirus can infect a lot of people, Feinman said.

The jail has done a good job of checking people for symptoms and preventing the virus from getting inside, he said.

“But no matter what we do, jails and prisons are still jails and prisons and there’s abundant scientific evidence and news reports documenting that jails and prisons are places in which coronavirus thrives,” Feinman said.

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