Last week Pima County Public Defender Joel Feinman sent a memo to other criminal justice agencies urging a move to release as many nonviolent defendants from the jail as possible, given the COVID-19 health emergency.
COVID-19, also known as the Coronavirus, is a highly contagious disease that can flourish inside jails in prisons.
“There is ample scientific evidence that talks about why this population is more vulnerable to the disease,” Feinman said. “This disease flourishes in conditions of overcrowding, where people are living together in very close quarters, where they have substandard health care, and where there are not as rigorous cleaning protocols in place. You basically just defined jails and prisons across the country.”
The Pima County Attorney’s Office asked the public defenders to generate a list of all defendants they believe should be released. These are individuals considered not dangerous to the community, and are most often facing low-level drug possession charges.
The defendants fall into two categories: those who are awaiting hearings on petitions to revoke probation, and those who are in custody awaiting their trial and have not been convicted.
People who do not have the financial resources to pay their bail must stay in custody until their trial, meaning the people who are at a higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19 are most commonly poor people.
“Given that so many of them are charged with nonviolent drug offenses, and the overwhelming majority of them are in jail because they’re too impoverished to pay for their bail, it’s inhuman to condemn people to illness and death because they can’t afford to post $1,000 bail on a drug possession case,” Feinman said. “It’s simply inhuman.”
On Friday, the Public Defender’s Office received a list from the jail of everyone currently in custody. Feinman and a group of volunteer attorneys worked around the clock on Saturday and Sunday to review each defendant on the list and decide if they would have a shot at being released early, given the public health crisis.
Feinman said the final list includes 140 people. By comparison, there are currently about 1,900 people incarcerated in the county jail.
The County Attorney’s Office received the list from them on Monday afternoon, and Chief Deputy Amelia Cramer says they’re currently reviewing it. This list includes felony and misdemeanor defendants with charges filed in Pima County Superior Court, Justice Court and Tucson City Court.
For the defendants with pending petitions to revoke probation, their cases will have to go back to the Superior Court judges that they originated from, and the judges will have to determine whether they are okay with the releases.
Cramer said she and others met with the presiding Superior Court judge at 8 a.m. this morning, explaining they should anticipate an expedited motion for the release of certain defendants approved by the Public Defender’s Office and County Attorney Barbara LaWall.
The County Attorney’s Office is now working on informing victims associated with charges the defendants are facing.
“For example, there might be a Circle K or a commercial business that had something stolen from the yard or shoplifting that sort of thing,” Cramer said. “So we’re looking at low-level, either drug possession for personal use, tiny quantities of sale of drugs by somebody to support their own habit, or low-level property offenses, some of which have victims.”
In addition, several criminal justice agencies are working together to obtain housing for any of the defendants slated for release who may be homeless, and the Pima County Sheriff’s Department has agreed to provide transportation for those people from the jail to that housing.
“We’ve really had phenomenal cooperation from the leadership of all the criminal justice agency heads, as well as the community-based agencies that provide housing to the homeless,” Cramer said. “So it’s been a tremendous effort by a lot of different people to try to make this happen as fast as we can.”
If the upcoming motion is approved by a Superior Court Judge, it can then be delivered to the jail, where officials estimate they could process the release of defendants within 24 hours.
Cramer said many people in the criminal justice system are working very long hours to make these releases happen as quickly as possible, so they can reduce the jail population and limit the potential spread of COVID-19.
“There were about 20 attorneys working all weekend until late into the night Saturday and Sunday, so they’re the real heroes of this story,” Feinman said. “Their efforts were absolutely heroic, their efforts will literally save lives.”