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  • Small bags make big difference in lives of those with criminal justice issues

    Face masks. Hand sanitizer. Tiny bottles of shampoo. Little sticks of deodorant. Body wipes. A first-aid kit. Socks. Sunscreen. Toothbrushes. A blanket.
     
    About 18 items in all – plus printed information on coronavirus safety and how to access community resources – fill up 300 new Release Bags put together by Pima County’s Criminal Justice Reform Unit (CJRU).
     
    These bags will be distributed as a helping hand to individuals who:
    • Are being released from the Pima County Adult Detention Center to local treatment providers via the Jail Population Review Committee (JPR)
    • Have been deflected to Medication-Assisted Treatment services after an interaction with the Tucson Police Department
    • Are part of the County’s U-MATTER program (Unified Medication Assisted Treatment Targeted Engagement Response)
    • Are in follow-up outreach after experiencing an opioid-related overdose
    Filling bags “COVID-19 exacerbated the needs of these individuals and added additional ones such as the need for face masks,” said Mayra Ramos, a program manager in the CJRU.
     
    The Pima County Public Defense Services office originally saw a similar program across the the country and brought it to the attention of the CJRU, which implemented a pilot effort here. Early on during the pandemic, masks and hand sanitizer were handed out in donated tote bags to nonviolent inmates who were granted early release as a way to address concerns about COVID-19 spreading through the jail population.
     
    After a test run and positive feedback from community partners, the County expanded the Release Bag program to incorporate additional items, such as Narcan, secured via a partnership with Sonoran Prevention Works (SPW). Narcan, used for the emergency treatment of known or suspected opioid overdose, will be included in bags given to individuals involved in TPD outreach and deflection.

    By working with a variety of vendors and partners, the County increased the number of items and reduced cost to under $10 per bag. 

    “An important role of the CJRU is to inform policy and implement projects,” Ramos said, “but another critical part of our work is direct services and really being able to assist individuals on their singular and distinctive path to re-integration, treatment, and success.”

    Assistant County Administrator Wendy Petersen, who oversees the Criminal Justice Reform Unit, personally sewed the masks for the pilot project.
     
    At one point, a young woman was given a choice of prints on two masks. Ramos recalled that encounter in a video interview.
     
    Many partners in the County and community came together to help identify needs and fill the Release Bags, which can be customized by gender. Those partners include the Pima County Attorney’s Office, Pima County Public Defense Services, Arizona Superior Court in Pima County Pretrial Services, the Tucson Police Department Substance Use Resource Team (SURT), the City of Tucson and CODAC’s peer support specialists, who provide specialty care for mental illness, addiction and trauma.
     
    “I think we have been very thoughtful and strategic to seek input from front-line workers who are having direct contact with community members, and individuals with lived experience both with the criminal justice system and substance use treatment,” Ramos said. “It’s a collaborative effort, most definitely.”
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