Reform With Few Results: Pima County jail population continues to rise despite decade-long effort

Published: Aug. 8, 2023 at 6:39 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - Reform without enough results.

That can be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s what some Pima County leaders see right now.

The jail population continues to rise in the county despite a decade-long effort to reduce the inmate count.

Some leaders said it’s an indicator that criminal justice reform in the county is not where it needs to be.

Right now, there are nearly 1,900 inmates inside the Pima County Adult Detention Complex.

“I have a jail full of people,” said Sheriff Chris Nanos.

After a decade’s worth of work, Nanos believes the county’s criminal justice reform plan is not making enough of a dent.

“I don’t see it. I’ve never seen it,” Nanos told 13 News’ Valerie Cavazos.

It all started with a directive to reduce the inmate population to 1,300 to avoid having to build a new one.

In 2014, the jail was bursting at the seams averaging 2,100 inmates -- sometimes cresting over 2,300 -- with the crisis directly impacting taxpayers.

In came the MacArthur Foundation.

The private foundation had launched a nationwide Safety and Justice Challenge to help cities cand counties rethink their criminal justice systems.

The initiative’s goal was to reduce over-incarceration and advance racial equity. The county came up with six strategies to make it happen.

The foundation awarded the county nearly $4 million to make it all work.

Data shows the inmate count hovered around 1,850 for several years.

In 2020, there was a sudden change thanks in part to the pandemic. We saw a dramatic drop in the population to about 1,500 inmates in 2021, which moved the count closer to the goal of 1,300.

But as the sheriff points out, not due to any real reform.

“Simply, we said, quit arresting for a while,” he said. “If you can cite the person, don’t book them. There was really no real policy change. It was simply COVID.”

But the person now leading the county’s reform effort has a different take.

Kate Vessely, in charge of the Justice Services Department, said if it wasn’t for the work done so far the inmate count would be a lot higher because the county’s population continues to grow -- 7% since 2010.

“You see that reflected in our bookings,” she said. “You see that reflected in the jail population despite best efforts to try and reduce it. It’s continuing to increase. When we started the MacArthur Project, our population was 20% misdemeanors. But nowadays, our jail population is about 4 to 5 percent of misdemeanors.”

Vesselysaid if things stayed the way they were, “we would be looking at a population of 2,400 or more.”

But Nanos argues without tackling the root cause of misdemeanor crimes the jail has become a revolving door of reoffenders, who are racking up new charges -- sometimes leveling up to violent felonies.

Nearly all the inmates now sitting in jail are facing felonies.

The count is climbing and moving further away from the 1,300 goal.

“There’s got to be a better way,” Nanos said. “I think they’ve had some success. But is it to the success that others were thinking of?”