Pinal gets $4 million to develop criminal justice diversion program

Richard Urban
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By Richard Urban / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

A $4 million state grant that Pinal County recently received will start helping nonviolent offenders with behavioral, mental health, or substance abuse problems enter treatment programs soon after they are booked into jail.

“What we've identified is that jail is not solving those problems,” County Attorney Kent Volkmer said. “Getting you out of the environment, getting you away from work, getting you out of your house where you can't pay rent and everything is not really helping people be successful.”

In most cases, people who have been arrested must be convicted and put on probation before they can get the help they need.

“If we can quickly start getting you connected with the services to fix the underlying issue, the less likely you are to recidivate, the more likely you are to benefit from it. And the quicker we can have the services in place at the time that they're needed, the better outcome that we're going to have,” Volkmer said.

“We want to really be able to make sure we're getting these people connected with the services that they need to be productive members of society and hopefully not further offend.”

But, he cautions, “if you're a dangerous person, then we will have no problems with putting you in our jail for a long time.”

Last year, the state legislature considered a bill to enhance diversion programs throughout the state to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail and create re-entry programs for those imprisoned when they get out. The bill that passed was narrowed to create pilot programs in Pinal and Mohave counties and continue funding programs in Yavapai County.

It took almost eight months after the bill passed for the grant to finally reach Pinal County.

The legislation requires establishing a committee that includes law enforcement, the public defender, the prosecuting attorney, program service providers, the presiding judge, the clerk of the court, and others.

Volkmer said the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee will provide the framework for the state-funded program. He anticipates that the Board of Supervisors will appoint someone to lead the effort and sort through all the proposals that inevitably will come.

“You've got the sheriff, you've got probation, you've got county management, you've even got the board, you've got my office, and we all have these different ideas. And none of them are mutually exclusive. But we've got a lot more wants than we do money,” Volkmer said.

“So, I believe the next step is we are going to probably appoint — my word, not theirs — a sort of czar, like a re-entry czar,” who will review proposals and set priorities based on what makes the most sense and offers the best return. He said that could be in motion by summer.

Over the last five years, Pinal’s jail population has decreased from a daily average of about 700 to about 500 today because of coordinated efforts throughout the justice system.

“Our courts have done a good job of really trying to decipher who needs to be in jail and who doesn't,” Volkmer said.

While he cannot predict whether the jail population will continue to decrease, he does think the programs the state funds will help create can reduce crime.

“We know the sooner we can offer to get you out of the criminal justice system, the less likely you are to find yourself further in it. Our goal is to get people before they get into the system and to make sure people that are released from jail get connected to services. It really is designed to fill a lot of gaps that we currently have in our community.”

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Richard is an award-winning journalist with more than 40 years experience in newspaper and magazine publishing. He has covered topics that include local and state government and politics, courts and crime, environment, business and innovation.

Phoenix, AZ

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