Lower-level criminal defendants who can’t afford their bonds can soon get out of jail without having to pay any money to await trial under a new Pima County program that could save taxpayers millions of dollars, officials said.
In a move being described as the first of its kind, the Board of Supervisors has given the go-ahead for the county to fund its own bail-bonding operation through a local nonprofit.
To be eligible, prisoners must have bond set at $30,000 or less and the charges against them cannot be for homicide, sex crimes or child exploitation. Typically a prisoner now would pay a professional bail bond company about $3,000 to secure his or her release on a $30,000 bond.
Defendants also can’t have any kind of hold on them from another jurisdiction, and would be supervised by pretrial services while on release. The new setup will reduce the cost of running the Pima County Jail and avoid the job losses and family breakups that often occur when someone charged with a lesser offense spends weeks in pre-trial custody for lack of bail money, officials said.
“For too long, we have had a system that kept people confined in jail because they were impoverished,” Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry told supervisors at the board’s Dec. 1 meeting.
“We basically confine a lot of folks for very minor crimes for sometimes weeks at a time on a $500 bond that they cannot pay.”
Dean Brault, the director of Pima County Public Defense Services, said the county will provide an initial pool of money — an amount yet to be determined — to a nonprofit agency to use for bond money. If a defendant doesn’t show up for court, “any forfeiture of bonds is returned to the county’s general fund,” he said.
“Lots of bad things happen to people when they are in custody and they can’t get out because they don’t have the money,” said Brault, a longtime public defender.
“This program is designed to get everybody out who we clearly think should be out, and to do that quickly so they get back to their families, get back to their jobs and have their lives be stabilized,” he said.
Brault’s research earlier this year, which looked at 2017 prisoner data for the Pima County Jail, found taxpayers would have saved about $3.3 million on jail costs that year had the new program been in effect at the time. That figure doesn’t include money saved by other government agencies for things like foster care if a single parent is arrested and children have nowhere to go.
The county jail housed about 7,000 felony defendants in 2017. About 700 would have qualified to have their bail costs covered under the new program, Brault said.
The Board of Supervisors approved the program by a 3-2 vote, with District 1 Supervisor Ally Miller and District 4 Supervisor Steve Christy voting against.
“I’m very concerned this will lead to a lot of people not coming back to court because they have no skin in the game,” Miller said at the meeting.
The new proposal has the backing of the county’s criminal justice reform advisory commission, comprised mainly of retired local judges, prosecutors and police.
“We know that current bail/bond systems have the greatest negative impact on the poor and on persons of color,” the commission said in a letter of support.
Brault said some jurisdictions have provided partial public funding for similar bail reform efforts, but said Pima County is the first he’s heard of to provide full public funding.
Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @StarHigherEd.