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FREE TO KILL: “Our best effort is not good enough”

Probation officers say elimination of automatic holds is putting public safety at risk
KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: May. 24, 2022 at 10:30 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - You might remember the movie, “Catch Me If You Can” starring Leonardo Dicaprio.

His con-man character escapes arrest over and over again.

That’s how one probation officer describes what’s playing out in real life in Pima County.

The department head told KOLD the probation officers are able to handle the caseloads, which we discovered exceeded state limits.

Some of them argue the counts are far too high to manage and public safety is at risk.

There were 93 homicides last year, a record for Tucson Police, and the numbers are trending up over the past few years.

The counts include dangerous felons on probation ordered not to possess a weapon released by the court some repeatedly.

We’ve reported on eight cases and still counting.

The probation officers, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, argue these felons should have been sitting in jail awaiting trial.

One probation officer said, “It’s a revolving door. They go in, they come out, they go in, they come out.”

Another said, “People think probation is a joke.”

64 percent of criminal defendants are placed on probation and most are high risk offenders.

Like Jose Quintero, who pleaded guilty last year, to manslaughter and abandoning the body while he was on probation.

Anthony Salcido Junior is accused of killing a woman and abandoning her body last year. He was placed on probation after pleading guilty to aggravated domestic violence.

His father, Anthony Salcido Sr., was also arrested in connection with her death and had been in and out of jail.

One probation officer said, “He was even reinstated and placed on intensive probation. So, that should have never happened. Maybe the victim wouldn’t have been killed.”

So then why are probation violators being released?

Pima County Probation Director David Sanders explained it’s part of the department’s plan to reduce the jail population.

“We committed our department to what we call evidence-based practices. What that means is getting ride of practices that aren’t shown to be effective and embracing those that are,” Sanders said.

One of the strategies they’ve embraced is the elimination of “automatic holds”.

That practice requires probationers to be held in jail when arrested for a new crime.

The reduction plan called for “automatic holds” to be discontinued in favor of individualized decisions by the probation officer along with a supervisor, but must be based on specific risk of danger.

The probation officers argue that plan is proving to be ineffective in these cases.

“So with evidence-based practice, we use that every day, but you can’t, it doesn’t work for everybody,” said a probation officer.

Higher ups aren’t listening to them, they said, and judges are releasing too many felons too soon, within a day or two, to keep them out of custody.

“They’re not taking the time to look at each case individually. They’re just lumping these people together,” one said.

Probation officers are the eye and ears for the judges so it’s important for them to spend time together to get the full picture.

But the probation officers say that’s no longer happening with some of the judges.

Communication is reduced to emails only and they receive a response only about 30 percent of the time so they often feel shoved aside while felons walk right back the streets.

“Holds are hardly ever, ever placed now,” said one probation officer, “They get out and just keep going. We don’t get notified right away. It can take hours for us to get notified. Then once again we have no idea where they are, what’s going on.”

Often “flying in the wind,” hard to catch, and hard to keep up with mounting caseloads.

But the probation director has a different perspective saying the judges and county attorney have a lot of confidence in the department to be effective.

“To hold people accountable, to try and let things not get out of hand to provide services where they’re needed. It makes it challenging for us, but we also enjoy the confidence that they have in us to give it our best effort,” Sanders said.

“Our best effort is not good enough,” said one probation officer, “Reinstating these offenders is just giving the message that we’re waiting for you to commit something bigger and then we’ll see how serious it is.”

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