Pima County Jail overpopulation and racial disparities

In 2016, as part of its “Safety + Justice Challenge,” the MacArthur Foundation awarded Pima County $1.5 million to invest in strategies to reduce the average daily population of the Pima County jail. According to the Pima County government’s own web site, “While many potentially dangerous and violent offenders are incarcerated, jail data show many more face lesser, nonviolent misdemeanor charges.”

More than 80% of our jail’s inmates are on pretrial status, which means they are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted of a crime. The single largest group of pretrial detainees are in jail on warrants for failing to appear in court on misdemeanor charges. Many of the other men and women currently held in our jail were originally charged with misdemeanor crimes like shoplifting and DUI, and lower-level felony charges such as drug possession, possession of drug paraphernalia, and aggravated criminal damage.

Hopefully the MacArthur grant will also study ways in which the tremendous and tragic racial disparities in the Pima County Jail can be remedied. These disparities are glaring, and have worsened over time.

Per capita Pima County jail incarceration rate increase: African-American
1996 – 422 per 100,00 residents
2014 – 713 per 100,00 residents
– 69% increase
Per capita Pima County jail incarceration rate increase: Latino
1996 – 240 per 100,00 residents
2014 – 351 per 100,00 residents
– 46% increase
Per capita Pima County jail incarceration rate increase: Native American
1996 – 251 per 100,00 residents
2014 – 675 per 100,00 residents
– 169% increase
Per capita Pima County jail incarceration rate increase: Caucasian
1996 – 203 per 100,00 residents
2014 – 271 per 100,00 residents
– 33% increase

Caucasians are jailed in numbers that are disproportionately smaller than their total population in Pima County, while Hispanics, Native-Americans, and African-Americans represent a far higher percentage of the jail population then their total county population. This problem mirrors the racial disparities that plague both our state and federal prison systems, and it demonstrates that racial disparity in the criminal justice system is not just a problem for Phoenix or Washington, D.C. – it is our problem here in Pima County as well.

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