In 2015, Pima County was selected to participate in an initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way the country thinks about and uses jails. In that time, the jail’s misdemeanor population has been cut nearly in half.

Far fewer people are being jailed for misdemeanor offenses and outstanding warrants are at an all-time low nearly two years into a multimillion-dollar grant to safely reduce the Pima County jail population.

The accomplishment is the result of strategies identified by the organizers of the Pima County Safety and Justice Challenge, focusing on screening to identify appropriate bail terms and divert defendants away from jail cells and into programming when possible; preventing and resolving failure to appear warrants; and home detention options with monitoring by the local sheriff’s department and jail.

In 2015, Pima County was selected as one of 20 locations to participate in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety + Justice Challenge, a national initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way the country thinks about and uses jails. The county was given a $150,000 planning grant to develop a strategy and in 2016, the county was awarded $1.5 million to invest in programs and initiatives to reduce the jail population by 2019.

When organizers applied for the grant in 2014, the Pima County jail was nearing capacity, with an average daily population of 2,136. As of April, the average daily population had dropped to 1,807 — a reduction of 15 percent. The goal is to reduce the average daily population 26 percent by 2019, which program manager Terrance Cheung is hopeful they’ll make.

The bulk of the grant money went into the first strategy of enhanced screening and treatment alternatives, Cheung said. The other two strategies were left largely unfunded by the grant, but the county stepped in to provide the necessary financial assistance.

While results have been favorable, the initial focus was on the jail’s misdemeanor population, which has been cut nearly in half, according to data.

On Aug. 15, 2015, there were 1,554 people booked into the Pima County jail for felonies and 274 for misdemeanors, according to jail data.

About two years later, on August 11, 2017, 1,743 jail inmates were being held on felony charges and 140 were booked into jail for misdemeanors.

As a result of the drastic decline in defendants being held for misdemeanors, organizers are shifting their focus to address nonviolent offenders arrested for felony drug charges and taking additional steps to help further decrease the jail population over the next year.

“The criticism that we sometimes get is why aren’t things happening as quickly as in Philadelphia,” said Assistant Pima County Administrator Wendy Petersen.

Philadelphia has seen marked results in reducing their jail population, in part because of their participation in the challenge, but the city also has a new district attorney who is refusing to charge people with certain types of crimes, Cheung said. Philadelphia also received more than double the grant money that Pima County did, being awarded with $3.6 million.

“It doesn’t happen in a year, it sometimes doesn’t happen in two years,” Petersen said. “For a trenched-in system to change, it’s going to take more than a year or two.”

While the funding for this year has already ended, organizers are getting ready to apply for next year’s grant funds, with the application deadline set for mid-October.

Pretrial screenings

When a person is arrested, employees with Pima County Pretrial Services will verify the defendant’s information and references and complete a criminal background check to make a recommendation for conditions of release. When appropriate, the agency will provide an alternative to jail and monitor the person’s performance while awaiting trial, including if she or he is adhering to court-ordered drug or alcohol testing, programs or counseling.

In October 2016, Pretrial Services expanded its risk screening for substance abuse and mental health issues to include all misdemeanor defendants, instead of only those who showed risk factors. Six months later, behavioral health screening and treatment referrals were added for all nonviolent felony drug offenders who displayed mental health flags.

Since April 2017, 312 defendants who would have otherwise spent time in jail were instead referred to a behavioral health specialty caseload, which includes enhanced supervision by case workers.

Pima County is the only MacArthur site that has enhanced supervision in place and while defendants have to agree to the screening the rate of defendants that have declined screening has been low, Cheung said.

“Now we’re at a point where we need to talk about do we need to increase the cases we screen with this tool and do we have the capacity to supervise the people we’ll release,” said Pima County Pretrial Services Director Domingo Corona. “We also don’t want to take away from the people who have already been released due to the enhanced screening. The caseloads are designed to stay low.”

Warrant resolution

In 2016, Pima County Consolidated Justice Court and Tucson City Court began hosting weekend and after-hours court events for people to clear up outstanding warrants that when left unresolved can lead to a person being jailed.

During the 26 events, more than 10,000 issues have been handled, including quashing warrants, holding hearings and taking payments at a walk-up window. This has equated to a 40 percent reduction in active warrants out of Justice Court and a decrease from more than 40,000 to 26,791 warrants outstanding from Tucson City Court.

The Pima County Attorney’s Office has also contributed to the reduction by eliminating old warrants, Cheung said.

Justice Court has also been sending automated text messages and phone calls to remind people about upcoming court dates. Tucson City Court is hoping to launch the service this summer and Pretrial Services is looking into implementing this for superior court cases.

Organizers are thinking about bringing similar court services to communities such as Sells and the Tohono O’odham Nation, where some residents face transportation difficulties when trying to get to downtown Tucson.

What’s next

The jail recently participated in a stress test to determine why people stay in jail for a given amount of time. After a review of 35 representative cases, the group behind the James F. Austin Stress Test made several recommendations, which organizers are getting ready to roll out in upcoming months.

At the end of July, Pima County Superior Court will undergo a case processing review by the Justice Management Institute to look at the amount of time it takes for a case to get through the system.

The county has created a jail navigator position, designed to avoid situations where a person is overstaying their time in the jail. A few days after a person’s initial hearing, the navigator will take a second look to see why the person is in jail in the first place and if there is a way to get a person released sooner.

Organizers are also exploring the idea of early release incentives based upon an inmates’ completion of programs on jail-issued tablets. As of now, there are more than 40 courses available to inmates including GED classes and anger management. Substance abuse courses may also be added to help address the growing opioid epidemic.

In about a year, construction will begin on a new county-funded re-entry hub, located right next to the jail. The building would house services to assist people coming out of jail with re-entering society, providing pre-release services and helping people establish a plan. The second floor will have bridge housing for people who need more time to find traditional housing, Cheung said.

“The underlying concern we all have is are we doing this in a safe way, are the right people being released, and not only that, but we’re rethinking the whole jail’s role in safety,” Corona said. “There are studies out there that show that if you hold someone in custody, it increases their likelihood for recidivism. We’re trying to do it the right way and have a sustainable long-term impact.”

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt.

I'm a government watchdog reporter, covering public safety policy and family issues.