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Less is more when it comes to putting people in jail

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As someone who has lived in Phoenix since the early 1990s, I have always had a little bias when it comes to comparing Phoenix and Tucson – you know, because we’re bigger. Where in a single day can you play a world-class golf course, spend an excessive amount of money at a “fashion mall,” and eat a delicious and incredibly overpriced dinner. How can Tucson compare? What can we learn from them? Isn’t bigger always better?

After all, Phoenix is the heart of Maricopa County, one of the biggest counties in the nation — with a jail to match. According to ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy (also in Phoenix — Tempe, to be exact), at its peak, Maricopa County Jail housed almost 10,000 inmates a day in 2006. By 2015, that leveled off, but still hovered near 8,000 a day. I bet Tucson, the heart of Pima County, cannot top that.

Kurt Altman

Kurt Altman

As it turns out, Pima County is trying hard not to top those numbers. Their leaders realize that high county jail populations cost significant amounts of taxpayer money to maintain with little correlation to public safety.

In 2015, Pima County applied for a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge Grant. In April 2016, the county became one of 10 national core sites to receive that grant money ($1.5 million) with the aim of safely reducing local jail populations, saving taxpayer money, and reinvesting those savings in alternatives that increase public safety, while keeping only those who need to be jailed within the barbed wire. Prior to receiving the grant, 80 percent of housed Pima County Jail inmates were pre-trial — meaning they had been charged, but not convicted of a criminal offense. Much of that 80 percent consisted of inmates who were only in jail because they missed court dates, also known as a failure to appear (FTA).

Staggeringly, 93 percent of those failure to appears  were for underlying misdemeanor charges like shoplifting or driving on a suspended license — criminal charges that typically would not require pre-trial incarceration at all. Nor would jail sentences likely be imposed even after a conviction on such charges. However, those charged with even minor criminal offenses end up in jail, not because they pose a threat to public safety, but because they missed a court date. Typically, they stay in jail only a short time, until they can explain to a judge that they could not get a ride to court, could not get the day off and did not want to lose their job, did not know they had to go to court because they thought it was just a ticket, or they simply forgot. In my 23 years as a criminal attorney, both a long-time prosecutor and defense attorney, I’ve seen this scenario hundreds of times. Valid excuse or not, these misdemeanor type offenses are not the crimes that should be filling our jails. Pima County agrees.

Part of the MacArthur grant money is being directed toward solving the FTA problems. The goal is to reduce the Pima County average daily jail populations by 26 percent by 2019. In 2014, Pima County taxpayers housed 2,136 inmates a day. If successful, that number will fall by 562 individuals — to 1,574 — which equals roughly $2 million a year in savings. To achieve that goal, the MacArthur grant money is being used to enhance automated court reminders to those charged with minor criminal offenses via phone calls and text messages. Also in the works is a Warrant Resolution Center, where those who realized they missed a court date can walk in and resolve the warrants without arrest, booking, or a jail stay. Both Justice Courts and Tucson City Court are going to extend hours of operations to weekends and weeknights so people have greater ability to attend court dates without abdicating their other responsibilities. These are simple, pragmatic ideas that can significantly reduce unnecessary jail costs without jeopardizing public safety.

Pima County’s strategies have only recently been implemented. Only time will tell if they work and the ultimate goal of a 26 percent jail reduction is reached. But the plan is solid and simple – keep people who should not be in jail out of jail. Find another way. The MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Grant is helping Pima County and nine other sites around the nation do just that.

So, while Phoenix may be bigger, it turns out bigger is not always better, especially when talking about jail populations. The real winners will likely be the taxpayers of Tucson and Pima County because their leaders realize less is more. Much more actually. For all that Phoenix boasts, Tucson is setting the example here. Ideas to save taxpayer money while keeping communities safe are not the monopoly of the big cities. Perhaps it’s a difference in degree rather than in kind, and we can learn valuable lessons from Tucson, where less really does mean more, especially for communities and taxpayers.

— Kurt Altman is the Arizona state director for Right on Crime and has nearly 24 years of criminal law and constitutional litigation experience and is a former deputy Maricopa County attorney and assistant U.S. attorney.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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