ACSO applies for MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge grant

It’s been two years since the MacArthur Foundation selected Ada County as a finalist for its Safety and Justice Challenge to reduce our jail population.

Since then we’ve been hard at work to create a sustainable plan to reduce Ada County’s jail population by 15%-to-19% — and to promote social justice.

Our plan to answer the challenge is add 14 people in key areas of Ada County’s justice system – including more inmate case managers, pretrial release experts, and court clerks — to make that happen.

We are also proposing adding a new night court for people with Failure to Appear charges to help them get out of the “miss court and get arrested” cycle along with text-messaging reminder software so people don’t miss upcoming hearings

Late last month we asked MacArthur for a $1.9 million grant to fund these improvements.

You may remember our previous application to the MacArthur Foundation in 2016 asked for $3.9 million, most of which would have gone to the creation of a Community Safety Center to provide services for people in crisis — like those suffering from mental illness or struggling with substance abuse — who now often find themselves in jail for lack of any other options.

We decided that plan duplicated efforts by the State of Idaho to create a similar Behavioral Health Community Crisis Center in Ada County.

We will work closely with the state and our local health and public safety agencies to use that facility once it gets built and staffed.

That allows us to concentrate on structural fixes to the local court system — like options to the traditional cash-based bond system.

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. That doesn’t really work for people on limited incomes.

So we’ve made some moves already to improve.

One temporary change that went into effect June 1 in Ada County is that anyone arrested on driving without privileges (1st-to-3rd offense) or failure to obtain, maintain, and provide proof of insurance will be released on their own recognizance (ROR) instead of having to post a cash bond. The Idaho Supreme Court approved this as a pilot project. We are hoping success in Ada County will result in this becoming law.

Ada County’s public defenders are now doing “jail sweeps” to identify people stuck in jail with low-level misdemeanor charges who can’t afford bond. They work closely with those inmates to resolve those cases and get them out of jail.

We’ve created new office space and public defender/inmate meeting rooms inside the jail and set up a second video courtroom to make case processing a little more efficient.

A major contributor to jail population is when people who are charged with a misdemeanor and fail to show up for court get arrested on Failure to Appear (FTA) charges. This can create an arrest cycle that is hard to break.

We surveyed people charged with FTA and found that 50% said they just didn’t know or forgot about their scheduled court date; 24% cited transportation issues; 8% said they had work or childcare conflicts.

Our proposal combats this phenomenon with the creation of the text-message notification system that will allow the Ada County Clerk of Court staff to send out alerts about upcoming court dates; a new unit at the Public Defender’s Office to help clients navigate the court system and attend their hearings; increased access to public transportation and travel vouchers; and the creation of a evening court to give people who have missed court dates an opportunity to appear in front of a judge before an FTA warrant is issued.

We’ve also identified a questionnaire/interview/criminal history assessment we can use for inmates eligible for Pretrial release to determine if they can be released from jail while their cases are being resolved.

This will give Ada County’s judges a useful tool to help make a pretrial release decision outside of the recommendation of a prosecutor.

We are also working on reducing current disparities for Native and African American inmates in our jail.

Ada County’s population is 85.3% white, non-Hispanic individuals, with 2.5% African-American and .2% Native-American populations. The jail population for African-Americans is 2.9% and .4% for Native-Americans.

Ada County law enforcement agencies will work to reduce this rate through education, training, and a renewed focus on community policing in our minority communities.

The Ada County Sheriff’s Office is mandating implicit bias training for all employees and has selected three employees to become trainers, who will create specific lesson plans for commissioned and civilian employees.

We are also proposing Idaho’s Peace Officer Standards and Training — which certifies all law enforcement officers in the state — to make implicit bias training part of their curriculum.

Our request would fund a total of 14 new jobs. Those include:

* Four public defender case managers to work closely with inmates to help them understand the court system and help them get to hearings.

* Four new pretrial release case managers (to join the current staff of five) to do risk assessments on everybody arrested in Ada County and provide recommendations for judges – and one pretrial release records technician for clerical support.

* Two court clerks who will oversee the text message notification system and the evening FTA court.

* A civilian mental health coordinator who would assist ACSO deputies on calls for people with mental health or substance abuse issues.

* A research analyst who will continue to work on jail reduction strategies and identify solutions as our plan evolves.

* A Safety and Justice Program manager to make sure all our strategies are implemented and to work with the State of Idaho on the implementation of the Behavioral Health Community Crisis Center.

That’s just an overview of our plan. If you want to read the whole thing, send an email to porr@adaweb.net and we will send you a copy of our latest application.

We will keep you up to date as the year goes on about our progress.

For more information on the Safety and Justice Challenge, visit http://www.safetyandjusticechallenge.org/

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