Last spring, the MacArthur Foundation gave a $150,000 grant to the Ada County Sheriff’s Office to study ways to decrease the jail population and improve social justice, according to a Sheriff’s Office on-line news release.
Six months of meetings and research later, a group of law enforcement and court officials from Ada County have now mapped out a plan to do both.
Their next move is to request a second grant -- of almost $3.9 million -- from the MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge to put their plan in action.
“The biggest piece of that funding would go towards the creation of a Community Safety Center that would provide services for people in crisis -- like those without homes, or suffering from mental illness or struggling with substance abuse -- who now often find themselves in jail for lack of any other options,” said ACSO spokesman Patrick Orr.
The idea is to have a safe place for law enforcement officers to drop off people in crisis where they can get treatment or access to services, instead of emergency room beds and jail cells, he added.
Under the plan, trained staff members would “triage” the people brought to the center and figure out treatment. That could include basic medical care, a mental health assessment, or a spot in a secure sobering station before connecting people to community resources.
People in crisis would not have to be picked up by law enforcement to use the center. It would a place for people in crisis to get resources they struggle to find on their own.
“The initial round of funding would help establish the center and get it going, with government, community, and private funding providing operating funds in the years to come -- much of that coming from cost savings by diverting people from costly jail cells and hospital beds,” Orr explained.
The Ada County center would be modeled after Center for Health Care Services near San Antonio, Texas, which the work group visited and studied over the last several months.
The Community Safety Center is only part of the plan. “There are fixes available to the court system that can reduce jail population and increase fairness -- like options to the traditional cash-based bond system,” Orr said.
In 2014, one-fifth of all jail bookings were for “compliance violations” such as failure to appear, contempt of court, and probation violations. Idaho has a money bond system, meaning if you have access to money, you can pay a bond and be released from jail while a criminal case moves through the court system.
“For instance, 750 people arrested in 2014 on low-risk misdemeanors simply didn’t have money to bond out of the jail and had to stay. During that same time period, 1,400 people charged with violent felony crimes were able to bond as their cases went through the system because they had money,” said Orr.
The Ada County Sheriff’s Office is proposing an increase in “release on recognizance” (ROR) options -- releasing low-risk individuals on violations like failure to appear or probation violation without making them pay a bond.
“We are also going to make a concentrated effort on contacting defendants who have upcoming court dates -- and doing extensive surveys to figure out why they are missing court dates and develop more effective techniques to get them show up,” Orr stated.
The Office says it is also working with judges to do more pre-sentence assessments of people charged with crimes, and use data to predict outcomes. They say the information will allow judges to craft plans -- both pre- and post- conviction -- that give people the best chances to succeed and stay out of jail.
There are other changes proposed in the plan as well, like adding two new public defenders to interact (via video conferencing) with people who are arrested without delay.
“Our research revealed some trends we didn’t expect -- like how homeless Hispanic and black people stayed in the jail longer than homeless people of other races. We also found a slightly higher rate of arrest versus citations for blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans charged with misdemeanors than white and Asian people,” Orr explained.
Ada County law enforcement agencies say they will work to reduce this rate through education and training -- and a renewed focus on community policing in our minority communities.
The expansion of the ROR system and the creation of the Community Safety Center will also help.
“We need to recognize risk extends well beyond the risk to flee, or the risk to re-offend,” Ada County Sheriff Stephen Bartlett said. “A risk to re-offend is not necessarily a risk to public safety in some lower-level offenses.
“Often unrecognized is the risk and liability in holding someone in jail simply because it’s easy or it’s the way we’ve always done it. Incarceration can have a significant impact on a defendant, their families, and the economy. Success will be understanding and balancing all the different types of risk — and reserving jail space for people who pose a threat to others,” he added.
Nearly 200 law enforcement jurisdictions from across the U.S. applied for the Safety and Justice Challenge last year.
The organization selected 20 finalists, ranging in size from large cities including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Houston to smaller localities like Ada County.
Now that the application has been submitted, the next step is a final series of interviews later this month. The MacArthur Foundation will pick ten agencies for the next round of funding.
Orr says the Sheriff’s Office should find out later this winter if it will be part of that group.