SPECIAL REPORT: Jails becoming popular residence for homeless

Housing the Homeless and Mentally Ill

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Tabitha is a 35 year old mother of three who finds herself homeless and spending the day in DeAnza park, endlessly rolling cigarettes to pass the time.

Her children, two 17, the other 4, are somewhere in North Carolina while she copes with life 2,000 miles away.

It's a harsh life.

"I've been in jail 18 times," she said. "...in the past year."

It may be 17 but she believes it's 18.

Mostly, she says it's for, "shoplifting for stuff she needs, like clothes."

Although, she says she steals alcohol at times too.

She also clutches a stuffed dog she named Smokey.

Like so many of the people in the park today, she's supposed to take medication for mental issues.

"I've seen so many counselors," she said. "The first time was when I was 11."

She says the last time she took psyche meds was "two and a half weeks ago when I was in jail."

Tabitha is not alone.

"About 70 to 85 percent of the people who are in the criminal justice system are mentally ill," said Susan Shetter, a mental health judge in Tucson City Court. "The fact is, that jail is not an effective deterrent for this population."

Yet, that's what Pima County is doing.

The jail has compiled a list of people who come back to jail over and over again.

18 people who were booked twenty or more times from June 1, 2016 to May 31, 2018.

119 people more than 10, but fewer than 20 times, in the same two year period.

11,989 were booked more than once but fewer than 10.

"The fact is, that jail is not an effective deterrent to this population," said Judge Shetter, who is also a member of the task force.

One of them has been jailed 41 times in that two years. He has since been taken off the streets and is currently housed at Amity wellness sanctuary on Tucson's East side but is not participating in any programs.

"We want to keep people out of jail who don't belong in jail," said Wendy Petersen, the chair of a new task force established by the county to find alternatives to jail.

It promises to be a difficult task for a variety of reasons.

One of them is the fact they can't be forced into housing or drug treatment programs. It must be voluntary and some prefer jail to treatment.

"For some people, jail is a safe haven," said Petersen. "But it's an expensive safe haven."

The cost to taxpayers is increasing every year.

The county will bill the city of Tucson $324.98 for first day booking charges of each inmate and $99.79 each day there after.

Most of the high jail users are sent to jail for minor crimes. The top three are trespassing, shoplifting and failure to appear.

"With this population we are not talking about people who are going out and committing armed robberies and serious felonies," said Shetter. "We are talking about a vulnerable population that in many cases are getting arrested for what I call being mentally ill in public."

Once they serve their sentence, which can be a few days, they are back on the street and the cycle starts all over again.

"For this population that lives on the street, it's just part of street life," Shetter said.

The task force is part of a movement in Pima County to find ways to reduce the jail population.

The county was chosen by the MacArthur Foundation Justice Challenge to participate in an experiment of sorts to find alternatives to prison.

The task force is made up of police, fire, mental health organizations, prosecutors and defense attorneys, -- a wide cross section.

"Why are we using something that doesn't work," said Shetter. "Let's try something else."

The group is still in its early stages, working towards a strategy which can be agreed on. But that appears to be a ways off.

"We should be reserving jail for people who need to be in jail," Petersen said.

Copyright Tucson News Now 2018