Pima County receives prestigious grant to reduce jail population

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Pima County has been named a recipient of a $1.5 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to help reduce its jail population.

The grant was awarded to only 10 of 200 jurisdictions nationwide that applied.

The gr ant will allow the county to focus on programs and ideas that will lower the incarceration rate without jeopardizing public safety.

"We agree that there are people in jail that do not need to be there," said Lori Lefferts, director of public defense for Pima County.

Lefferts said all agencies in the county are on board, including mental health agencies, the county attorney, law enforcement and the public defender's office.

The target, at least initially, will be those who suffer from mental health issues and behavioral problems.

When a person is arrested, they will immediately be screened to determine whether they need incarceration or whether they can be safely released back into the community.

However, finding enough providers may be a crucial first test for the gr ant money.

"One and a half million dollars is a lot of money, but it's not enough to address this issue long-term," Lefferts said. "I think we're going to find that we're really stretched for services."

Amelia Cramer, chief deputy for the Pima County Attorney's Office agrees keeping people out of jail needs to have more focus and attention.

"I think there are two motivations," she said. "One is to save taxpayer dollars, to save money and to do justice better."

But at the same time, she said she feels saving money must be done in a way which does not jeopardize public safety.

She said the idea is "to reduce the jail population so that we don't have people incarcerated who are not posing a danger to the community."

A year ago, the Pima County Jail housed 2,136 inmates, which bumped against capacity.

The idea tossed around at that point was to build a new jail to handle the overflow.

That would cost nearly $30 million and would only be a temporary solution.

With budgets being tight not just for the county, but for most jurisdictions, another alternative needed to be found.

Cramer feels this is a win-win because as the population of the jail drops, so will the cost of incarceration.

"In reducing the population of the jail, the savings on jail bed days, may be able to pay for the continuity of this once the grant money runs out," she said. "So that it will certainly pay for itself."

The MacArthur Foundation gr ant may be the solution to ease the pressure.

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