County Attorney to resume charging minor drug offenses after declination policy’s negligible effect

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County Attorney resumes charging for minor drug offenses

TUCSON, ARIZONA – March 9, 2022 – The Pima County Attorney’s Office will resume filing charges against people arrested on minor drug and paraphernalia charges and directing those people into the pre-indictment STEPS drug court, after an attempt to drive down the jail population failed to make a significant difference.

County Attorney Laura Conover issued a memorandum to area law enforcement in December, informing that minor drug offenders should not be taken to the jail because she would decline to prosecute them.

The purpose of the “declination” memo was to prevent those suffering from substance use disorder from being transported to jail during a pandemic and thereby reduce the risk of transmission among inmates.  However, vulnerable people were still being transported to the jail, where they spent hours in a holding area known as “the pit,” in cramped conditions, before PCAO deputy prosecutors could dismiss their charges. 

And the effort had minimal effect on the jail population, leading Conover to rescind her policy of not filing charges so that more people dealing with substance abuse disorder can be directed to treatment.

“The jail population was at 1,671 on December 14, 2021 – the day of my memo – and was at 1,673 as I draft this,” Conover wrote in a memorandum to area chiefs of police. “This isn’t an anomaly; this has been a consistent number for the jail population, as I watched it on a daily basis.”

An initial PCAO effort in October drove the population down from approximately 1,800 to 1,600, however, the population failed to drop further despite the subsequent December declination memo. The optimal jail population during COVID has been identified at 1,300.

“The jail population has been stagnant. No further reduction can be attributed to my memo,” she wrote. “Thus, my plan for keeping people from involuntary crowding as a public health risk was undermined.”

The decision to rescind the declination memo is based on PCAO commitments made to the community.

“I promised from the beginning that our policies would be solution oriented and data driven. True leadership requires coming together to review data and then an admission when a pilot project is not working,” Conover said. “But we absolutely cannot give up.”

The jail population remains a concern despite declining COVID infection numbers countywide, and Conover is not alone in wanting to reduce the population.

“Sheriff Nanos, who wholeheartedly agrees with this evaluation and with my consternation, is dealing with 200 inmates held on unspeakably violent crimes and trying to also manage non-violent sick people who should not be in jail at all and are at risk for violence, illness and overdose,” she said. “I don’t need the jail to help me hold people accountable. I can and will do that through charging.”

The Pima County Superior Court has several programs supported by the PCAO to address substance use disorder, including STEPS (Supportive Treatment and Intervention Program) for pre-indicted accused, Drug Court for those convicted of offenses and who suffer substance use disorder, and Drug Treatment as an Alternative to Prison, which gives people a chance to avoid prison via specialized probation.

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Laura Conover

Laura Conover

Pima County Attorney