Retired Tucson police lieutenant Sharon Callan participates in a conversation about the Safety and Justice Challenge in Pima County, Ariz. (Photo Courtesy of Pima County) 

In recent years, organizations across the United States have attempted to reduce the number of incarcerated people by focusing on state and federal prison reform. But they haven’t spent as much attention and money on reforming local jails, which are responsible for most US incarcerations. Since the 1980s, jail populations—and the costs of building and running jails—have increased threefold. And more than 50 percent of incarcerated individuals are black or Latino, even though these racial groups make up just one-third of the overall population.

In light of these problems, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has launched the Safety and Justice Challenge, a $100 million initiative that aims to change the way the United States uses and thinks about its jails. As of early 2017, the foundation had awarded grants of between $150,000 and $3.5 million each to 40 local jurisdictions that are working on community-driven initiatives to reduce racial and ethnic incarceration disparities and overall jail populations.

One of the grantees is Pima County, Ariz., which comprises Tucson and surrounding areas. From May 2015 to January 2016, Ellen Wheeler, the county’s assistant administrator, and Domingo Corona, its pretrial services director, used a $150,000 planning grant from MacArthur to collaborate with courts, law enforcement, and community members to pinpoint where the system’s needs were greatest. “We looked at who was in jail. What were the charges against them?” says Wheeler. “Our group—including leadership from all the critical components—started focusing on the major cause, which was substance abuse and mental illness.” MacArthur then awarded the county $1.5 million toward the goal of reducing its jailed population from a daily average of 2,136 in 2015 to 1,574 in 2019.

Currently, 75 percent of incarcerated people in Pima County are there for nonviolent offenses—especially substance abuse. “These are people with jobs and families,” says Terrance Cheung, program manager for the Pima County initiative. “And yet they’re sitting there just waiting for a trial, when they’re low risk.” This trend particularly affects women. Eighty-two percent of incarcerated women are nonviolent offenders, two-thirds are women of color, 32 percent suffer from mental health issues (almost twice the rate among incarcerated men), and nearly 80 percent are mothers.

“Women also struggle with housing after being released,” says Michele Keller, a steering committee member of the 32-person Community Collaborative, a volunteer-based group of 18 residents and 14 public sector lawyers and judges who give the county feedback on implementation and community outreach for the initiative. “Even if they have relatives, they might not have a family to go home to. And halfway houses often require a $100 cash deposit, which many women don’t have,” Keller says. She is a certified recovery support specialist and behavioral health technician who herself spent nearly eight years locked up in Arizona due to a 23-yearlong battle with addiction.

As well as offering mental health screenings, Pima County plans to make court proceedings more accessible—for example, adding weekend, evening, and late-night hearings for people who can’t come in during the workday. “For a lot of these individuals who have been incarcerated, it’s their first time sitting at the same table with prosecutors. For them, helping them understand the process has been enlightening,” Cheung says.

Each month, the Safety and Justice Challenge Network grantees—including Pima Country—send stats back to the MacArthur Foundation. “We’re looking for a more fair and effective system. Justice delayed is not justice,” says Laurie Garduque, director for justice reform at MacArthur. “You have to be looking at your performance metrics. You should always be revisiting the numbers.” Although Corona says the pretrial initiatives are going well so far, Cheung notes that the numbers are still fluctuating and says it’s too early to understand why. “We are hitting our targets and our numbers are down from 2014,” he says. “But jail trends tend to go up and down. For example, judges have a heart and don’t want to sentence people during the holiday season. But in October and November there was a spike, and we’re trying to find out what’s going on. A statewide task force looking for warrants, maybe?”

The Safety and Justice Challenge currently includes just 40 jurisdictions, but the MacArthur Foundation hopes to use grantees like Pima County as case studies that other jurisdictions around the United States can use to implement similar initiatives. “We want to create a peerlearning community,” Garduque says. “We need to think: How do jurisdictions have conversations about this?”

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