Reform with Few Results: Another critical gap involving judges revealed in Pima County’s criminal justice reform shortfall

Published: Aug. 31, 2023 at 6:46 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - Another critical gap has been revealed in why Pima County’s criminal justice reform hasn’t been working.

County leaders put a reform plan in motion, but a decade later, there’s no real proof progress has been made.

The MacArthur Foundation worked with Pima County to reduce over-incarceration and racial inequity.

But after ten years and millions of dollars in funding, the county couldn’t move the inmate needle far enough.

Kate Vesely is in charge of the Pima County Justice Services Department, formerly the criminal justice reform unit.

She said, “As the foundation pointed out, not that huge change that they were looking for.”

The MacArthur Foundation pointed to a critical piece missing from the reform process -- the courts -- specifically data on the judges’ decisions.

Without it, the foundation wrote, the county would have a hard time figuring out what’s working and what’s not, because it can’t fully track cases.

Vesely said, “We have to know what happens after and see if that decision was correlated to some outcome. And so that data is absolutely critical.”

Critical to not only the county but law enforcement leaders who have tried to understand some judge’s decisions.

Especially in the cases where violent felons with extensive criminal histories had been released from jail on low bond and free to kill.

Tucson Police Chief Chad Kasmar said this in an interview late last year.

“They post bail and they get out and they re-offend. And at the extreme end of that lives are lost within the time frame of where their case is moved through the system. That’s a systems failure. I think this county expects a review, a transparent view,” he said.

“There’s no accountability. Judge makes his decision -- who holds them accountable?” said Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos.

Presiding magistrate judge Tony Riojas said in one interview judges are accountable to the law not public opinion, but explained the MacArthur Foundation and the reform initiative became the determining factor in release.

“We’re under pressure to release -- to release more people,” said Riojas, “They talk about doing it safely, but everyone’s saying release, release.”

And when asked whether he still has discretion, he responded, “Oh yeah, no doubt about it.”

Discourse and division across the spectrum prevented real progress.

Segments of the system operated in silos, not knowing how the other works.

Pima County presiding judge Jeff Bergin publicly pushed back on aspects of the reform initiative and defended his judicial independence to the board.

The MacArthur Foundation wrote, “The impact of judicial autonomy and decision-making was not factored in considerations of justice reform”.

And now Vesely is answering the question -- what will it take to safely reform the system?

“I think the main priority is to not just assume that we can address one thing and fix it and expect the system to magically improve across the board,” she said.

13 News Investigates has asked several times to interview Bergin, but he’s repeatedly denied our requests.

We were told the court is working with the county to improve data collection.

And we’ve learned through its website that the MacArthur Foundation is ending its criminal justice initiative in 2025.