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Grant aims to keep people out of jail
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Grant aims to keep people out of jail

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Inmates, under the watchful eye of a deputy, are handcuffed together as they move into the elevator to go to a courtroom in the Pima County Superior Court building.

As jail and prison populations continue to grow, a national foundation has chosen Pima County to help research ways to reduce recidivism.

Pima County is one of 20 governments in the country to receive a $150,000 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant to research ways to reduce recidivism rates and jail populations.

The county was one of 200 jurisdictions that applied for the grant.

The county and the other jurisdictions selected will begin a six-month planning process to develop strategies to reduce jail populations in ways that don’t have a negative impact on public safety.

In February, the MacArthur Foundation plans to select as many as 10 of the jurisdictions for full funding and implementation of those plans. Funding amounts will vary from $500,000 to $2 million per year over two years.

The selected jurisdictions also will participate in extensive data collection, working with participating research organizations, to meet goals and track successes.

“The whole idea is to reduce jail populations and over-incarceration,” said Capt. Joshua Arnold with Pima County Jail.

Arnold said the jail already has taken steps to reduce recidivism and keep the jail population from swelling further.

Some defendants are allowed to wear ankle monitoring devices instead of going to jail, for example.

The jail also has programs to help inmates address the causes of their criminal behavior and end their cycles of incarceration.

“These are programs that reduce the jail population and directly reduce costs,” Arnold said. “The reason we were chosen is they see we are committed to making improvements.”

Pima County courts also have, over the years, implemented numerous specialty courts, diversion and incarceration-alternative programs.

Programs like drug court allow qualifying narcotics offenders to receive treatment and counseling as an alternative to incarceration. A quarter of the more than 6,000 felony cases filed in Superior Court annually involve drug offenses.

Even with the county’s alternative programs, jail populations have increased.

Since 1995, the average daily population in Pima County Jail has nearly doubled to more than 2,000 inmates, county data show.

The state’s prison population also has grown rapidly.

In 1980, the total state population was about 2.7 million and 3,600 inmates were held in state prisons. Today, the overall population stands at 6.6 million people and more than 41,000 people reside in state prisons.

That represents a more than 11-fold increase in the prison population while the overall state population nearly doubled.

County officials say almost half of the people in jail have behavioral health issues. As much as 10 percent of the jail population have been diagnosed with serious mental illness.

Arnold said Pima County Jail continues to be the largest mental health provider in the state, and is the only jail in Arizona that is part of the health information exchange, which allows the jail official to access medical records to make sure inmates receive needed medications.

Another issue that grant participants will try to address is the number of poor people in jail.

A survey of the Pima County Jail population in February showed nearly half of inmates were Medicaid eligible.

Other jurisdictions selected include: Los Angeles, New York City, Multnomah County, Oregon; Spokane County, Washington; Ada County, Idaho; Pennington County, North Dakota; Mesa County, Colorado; Harris County, Texas; St. Louis County, Missouri; Cook County, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Lucas County, Ohio; Shelby County, Tennessee; New Orleans; Philadelphia; Connecticut; Mecklenburg County, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; and Palm Beach, Florida.

The MacArthur Foundation plans to make a $75 million nationwide investment in the Safety and Justice Challenge.

Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at pmcnamara@tucson or On Twitter @pm929

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