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  • Legal adversaries agree on new approaches to criminal justice reform

    The criminal justice system makes natural adversaries of prosecutors and defense attorneys. But an innovative effort underway in Pima County brings the two groups together to lower the local jail population without compromising public safety.
    Eva Graham
    The County's Jail Population Review Committee meets weekly each Wednesday to examine cases of individuals charged with nonviolent crimes, such as shoplifting and drug possession, to find those who would make good candidates for release. To qualify for consideration, a defendant must face no higher than a Class Two felony and cannot yet have had more than an initial arraignment. Crimes with personal victims disqualify a defendant from consideration.

    The committee began work this past March as a new tactic in a larger strategy developed by the Pima County Criminal Justice Reform Unit, designed to address the most common causes of incarceration, notably missed court dates and low-level, nonviolent offenses often related to mental illness and substance misuse. The idea sprung from the County’s participation in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge Grant.

    "The longer people are in jail, the more disconnected from social networks they become and that exacerbates any underlying issues they have," Pima County Director of Justice Reform Initiatives Terrance Cheung said. “We created the committee to identify people who really don’t need to be in jail; who would otherwise be released if not for their behavioral health condition.”

    The panel consists of representatives from the Pima County Attorney's Office, Public Defense Services, and Pretrial Services and Adult Probation from Superior Court, as well as law enforcement agencies, mental health service providers, faith leaders and Jacob Linesmembers of the Safety and Justice Challenge Community Collaborative. People who have spent time behind bars also are represented.

    While every member provides input, the decision to recommend release ultimately falls to Deputy County Attorney Jacob Lines and Assistant Pima County Public Defender Eva Graham. The pair, and their respective offices, must agree before the committee signs off on a case. Aside from the charges in a defendant’s docket, other factors affect each decision, including employment status, prior record (if any,) current living arrangements and any underlying substance abuse or mental health issues.

    “Without the leadership on both sides being on board, and agreeing for us to be in the same room to talk and innovate, none of this happens," Graham said. "It’s a big change from before. Pima County is setting the standard for criminal justice reform and we’re doing it together."

    Despite the naturally adversarial relationship between their offices, both Graham and Lines agree the experience of serving together on the committee has fostered trust among all participants, at both a personal and organizational level. 

    "Getting people talking, across departments, on a regular basis is a really effective way to get stuff done," Lines said. "We're in contact with each other weekly, so we see the weird cases come up together and we can ask 'What is going on here?' and determine whether it's a symptom of something bigger. Often it turns out that there's a change that you can make that will make your life easier and make other people's lives better. I don't think it would work if it was a monthly or quarterly gathering.”

    The numbers speak for themselves. Since its inception the committee has recommended release for 186 people with the court approving 177 of them, resulting in a reduction of 8,403 total days in jail. On average, defendants spent 47 fewer days locked up, resulting in a significant savings for the County.

    Productive as it has been, the committee remains a work in progress and some hurdles remain, most significantly finding complete information on potential candidates.

    "It's just the nature how the data is stored. It takes hours, in some cases days to collect it all. Defense Services has access to some information, while the County Attorney has access to other information. It requires a great deal of communication between Terrance Cheungagencies." Graham said. "It takes a lot of us working together to ensure the motions are ready very quickly."

    The process requires a tight turnaround. Cases approved by the committee on Wednesday go before Judge Lee Ann Roads the following Friday. Hearings take place remotely over a video feed between the jail and Superior Court.

    Just a handful of local governments in the U.S. operate a "Jail Pop" committee (as members call it) and only Pima County's considers felonies, mostly drug possession and shoplifting cases. Most misdemeanor defendants are released from jail custody relatively quickly, either as a result of a pretrial screening or judge’s order.

    Prosecutor Lines credits the innovation of this approach with inspiring conversations about how other procedures work.

    "We've looked at ideas like whether we can consider diversion pleas earlier in the process or not filing charges in certain narcotics cases, those involving less than a tenth of a gram of drugs," he said. "As we look at other ideas we might think - 'We can't do that.' 'Well why not?' 'Because of this.' 'OK, is there a way we can change this?'"

    If the County Attorney's Office and Public Defense Services steer the process, Superior Court's Pretrial Services functions as the engine, providing potential candidates for the committee to consider. Indeed, the committee is the manifestation of a long-term effort by Pretrial Services Director Domingo Corona.
    Mike Steber
    "The success for me is in the commitment from our stakeholders. The fact that no one has backed out or is not actively participating, that is big," Corona said. "We have some pretty serious discussions around certain cases and the fact that everyone’s committed to finding resources to help this group of people is a win.”

    Further assistance comes from Mike Steber, the Pima County Sheriff's Department's Jail Population Coordinator, who compiles a weekly list of potential candidates for the committee to review and provides data analysis at the start of each meeting.

    "The beauty of the committee is it allows for each candidate to be assessed as an individual," Steber said. “Everybody needs data and the ability to drill down into the details. We provide a pretty clear picture for the committee, which allows them to make informed decisions.”

    The committee’s success has begun to receive notice outside Pima County. Graham, Lines, Cheung, and Corona in early October received an enthusiastic response while promoting the committee's work on a national stage, sharing their data and their experience with colleagues from across the U.S. at a criminal justice convention in San Diego, CA. The presentation inspired as many as a half-dozen other jurisdictions to consider creating their own Jail Pop panels.

    Photos, from top: Assistant Pima County Public Defender Eva Graham; Deputy County Attorney Jacob Lines; Director of Justice Reform Initiatives Terrance Cheung; and Pima County Sheriff's Department's Jail Population Coordinator
    Mike Steber.
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