Arizona County Wins Plaudits for Pretrial Services Program

Model program helps defendants avoid a night in jail and saves taxpayer money

HUNDREDS of counties around the United States have ``pretrial service'' programs to assist defendants, but the Pima County program here is getting special attention from the US Department of Justice. It has selected the program as one of seven ``model'' pretrial service departments - the department here will get $25,000 to play host to state and county officials who want to learn how to cut the costs of confining defendants awaiting trial in already overcrowded jails.

The basic mission of such programs is to oil the gears of the criminal justice system, by making recommendations as to whether to recommend a defendant's release. The recommendation is based on the nature and circumstances of the offense, the defendant's family ties, employment and financial resources, and record of arrests and convictions.

Linda McKay of the Justice Department describes these programs as a ``crucial link between law enforcement efforts and the correctional efforts.'' Each time the pretrial service department gains release for a defendant awaiting trial, Pima County's program saves the $70-a-day cost of keeping a suspect in jail.

While most similar programs handle only defendants charged with felonies, according to Ms. Holloway, the operation here handles those charged with misdemeanors, too, and has the power to release them without a judge's approval.

Of the 6,700 people arrested on felony charges in Pima County last year, half were released within 24 hours. Most of these were released into the custody of the pretrial services department, an arm of the state Superior Court. The others were released on their own recognizance, usually at the department's suggestion.

The release rate for the 20,000 defendants charged with misdemeanors was even higher. About half of those arrested last year were released on the authority of the pretrial services department - before ever being put into a cell. Of the other half, about 90 percent were released the next day at a Superior Court hearing on the recommendation of the department.

The program has consistently won high marks from local officials. Last year, 94 percent of defendants released under a pretrial recommendation showed up in court, compared with 84 percent released on bond.

But the program is not significant only for its efficiency, says Ms. Holloway. The most important goal of the department, she believes, is to ``assure that release while awaiting trial is not reserved for the wealthy.''

Louis Rhodes, executive director of the Arizona branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, has high praise for the Pima County pretrial program.

``I only wish we could get it into the rest of Arizona and the rest of the country. It does a great job of keeping the jails from getting clogged up, especially with those arrested for misdemeanors, which are relatively less important crimes,'' says Mr. Rhodes.

Here's how the program, which uses criteria established by the state Legislature, works: When a defendant is arrested by a Tucson policeman or a Pima County sheriff's deputy, he or she is taken to the county jail and booked, a process which can be completed in 20 or 30 minutes.

Within an hour or two, one of the 52 pretrial services staff people interviews the defendant and checks for a criminal history on the defendant in statewide and nationwide data systems.

The next morning another staff member continues the investigation, checking with employers, friends, and family to find out if the defendant has a home to go to, a job, and a family. At a Superior Court hearing, the staff member formally recommends release without bond, with suggested conditions, or suggests that the defendant be required to post a bond before being released.

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