Billion-Dollar Bad Guys

The county's jails are crammed full. But not with the dangerous felons backers of an initiative to raise money for new jails would have you believe.

Maricopa County's jails are bursting. Rather than reconsider housing so many nonviolent, victimless offenders, however, the county will attempt to convince voters that it needs state-of-the-art, maximum-security jails at up to $90,000 per bed.

But if Arpaio promotes an image of himself as warden for a sort of county penitentiary filled with violent offenders, the recent jail studies reveal instead that his jails are revolving doors for the hapless and indigent caught in a vicious cycle of fines, fees and failures to appear.

Says attorney Bruce Feder, who has defended indigent clients in city court, many of whom could not pay the smallest bond amounts, "We have to decide if we really need to pay $40 a day to house someone because they can't pay a $30 bond on a $20 original ticket."

You wouldn't know it from the numbers of people being prosecuted in Maricopa County, but for several years crime has fallen at a growing rate in the United States.

Violent crime tumbled 5 percent in 1997, according to preliminary statistics released in May by the FBI. Murders in particular are dropping dramatically, down 9 percent for the second year in a row. Some experts cite the aging of the nation for the downturn, others point to community policing and other law enforcement changes.

Crime in the western United States fell at a slower rate, 3 percent, but murders dropped even more precipitously, at 11 percent.

In Phoenix, meanwhile, despite a 3 percent increase in population, all four categories of violent crime--murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault--fell by 1 percent in 1997.

Jail tax proponents, however, continually cite the increase in Maricopa County's population to explain why jails are woefully overcrowded.

More people means more criminals, goes the logic. When new residents move in, government has to expand. Like new schools needed for the growing number of children, more jail beds are necessary for the multiplying number of lawbreakers.

However, county records suggest that the jail's population boom may have little to do with the numbers of people moving to the Valley.

For the past five years--since Joe Arpaio became sheriff in 1993--the jail population has increased at more than twice the county's growth rate. While the county's population rose 3 to 4 percent each year, the jail population has grown at about 10 percent per year. The year before Arpaio took office, the jail population actually went down.

No one, however, blames Arpaio for that increase.
Judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors and even Arpaio's own office point out that the sheriff has little to do with how many people are sent to jail and for how long. Credit instead should go to the large increase in uniformed police officers that has put about 1,000 more cops on the street in the past five years, says presiding Superior Court Judge Robert Myers.

Myers also says court dockets are jammed because of a marked increase in the number of felony filings coming out of County Attorney Rick Romley's office. In 1995, Romley submitted 16,000 felony charges. This year, he's on a pace to file 24,000--a 50 percent hike in only three years.

"We consider each and every case individually," says Romley spokesman Bill FitzGerald. "If we think there's a danger to the community or risk of flight, we ask for an appropriate bond."

Myers thinks the increase is because of a combination of factors. Each new police officer, he notes, makes about 11 new felony cases a year. And most of the new cases represent an upswell of drug arrests.

"The increase in police officers, the increase in population, the transient nature of our population, the easy accessibility to handguns in Maricopa County, the easy access to drugs in Arizona, I think all contribute," he says.

Despite the overall fall in violent crime, more officers means more arrests--and a greater number of petty offenders as well as serious offenders going to jail.

A year ago, the county hired a team of consultants to research jail crowding and come up with recommendations for the future.

The $458,000 study, headed by RNL Design, found that two major factors are crowding the jails: a sharp increase in the number of pretrial detainees--people put in jail to await trial--as well as a steady increase in the length of time inmates spend in jail.

The study also found that the majority of inmates are held for nonviolent crimes, and that most stay in jail only a day or two.

In June 1997, the study found, the single largest category of prisoners leaving the jail were pretrial detainees charged with misdemeanors; nearly all of them had served a day or less.

In all categories--pretrial and sentenced, misdemeanors and felonies--86 percent of inmates released that month had served two weeks or less. The average stay for all inmates is 20.9 days.

Although Arpaio says he needs the new jails for violent offenders, it's the short-time, nonviolent offenders who are taking the most space in his jails.

The more those prisoners can be diverted to alternatives other than jail, and the more rapidly the cases of those prisoners can be adjudicated, the more space will be left for violent offenders, the consultants told the county.

The consultants delivered 11 recommendations to solve overcrowding. Only the 11th mentioned building new jails. The other 10 suggested ways to reform the system to streamline and speed up cases.

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