They’ll Die Because They’re Poor, Not Guilty: Why Arizona Sheriffs Are Clearing Out the Jails

Arizona Jails

By Alicia Barrón

March 24, 2020

Law enforcement officers are releasing inmates and replacing arrests with citations in an attempt to protect communities from the coronavirus.

Less than 50 inmates were released from the Coconino County jail after judges collectively decided to release nonviolent offenders last week in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The decision came after The Arizona Department of Health announced the first death in the state as a result of the coronavirus. In releasing nonviolent offenders, the Coconino County court system hopes to prevent the virus from spreading in the Flagstaff community.

On March 18, Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) officials released a media advisory update that assured there were no known cases of COVID-19 in their jails but were continuing to take proactive measures to protect inmates and staff.

Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll, who worked with the courts to reduce his jail population through methods such as bond reductions, said he isn’t advocating for amnesty for people accused of committing crimes. Instead, he’s trying to take necessary steps to protect inmates, jail workers, court employees, and the public during a pandemic that’s forcing profound changes on American life.

“This isn’t a pass for people to commit crimes,” Driscoll said. “We will still issue citations. All the agencies are doing what’s necessary on enforcement. But we are just trying to minimize the people coming through the jails and the criminal justice system. People will still be held accountable for violations of law.”

On March 22, county officials revealed via this tweet that officials had found evidence of community transmission in Coconino County. 

Among the measures ADCRR implemented to prevent the spread of coronavirus was suspending both contact and non-contact visitation. Officials are now exploring potential video visitation options.

On March 23, ADCRR said in a COVID-19 Management Strategy Update that six inmates had been tested for the coronavirus and their results are pending.  

All ADCRR staff and inmates will continue to be evaluated on a daily basis for any flu or allergy-like symptoms.

In the meantime, Coconino County plans to update its residents on the coronavirus with daily updates that include the most recent numbers. On Tuesday, officials announced the first death in the county – a man in his 50s.

For Maricopa County, the Sheriff’s Office shared a COVID-19 FAQ sheet, where officials addressed whether they plan to release inmates in efforts to try to reduce the risks of COVID-19.

Sheriff Paul Penzone said he “has no intentions of prematurely releasing inmates without judicial directives or satisfaction of legal requirements.”

And in Pima County, while there are no known plans for early release, the sheriff’s department did share a video outlining new initiatives to encourage virtual visitations in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic.

Pima County Public Defender Joel Feinman framed the need to reduce the jail population as an issue of human decency to protect people who are too poor to pay a bond.

“We are condemning poor people to illness and death because they are poor,” Feinman said. “Not because they are a threat to the community, but because they are poor.”

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said it goes against the nature of law enforcement leaders to advocate for the release of people charged with crimes, but it’s imperative now to take preventative efforts in jails.

“This is unprecedented,” Estrada said. “No doubt about it. We have to use a lot of common sense for this.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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