TUCSON, ARIZONA – In Pima County, the use of a cash bail system upon arrest – which makes one’s ability to pay the primary means to be released from custody – has fallen to great disfavor. This is for good reason. None of us wants a person arrested on accusations of nonviolent offenses held simply because they are poor, just as none of us wants an affluent person accused of violent offenses to only be required to pay a hefty sum in order to return to the community.
Cash bail has proven to be antiquated and nonsensical. Smart justice requires a new approach.
After a six-month review of Initial Appearance Court hearings by Pima County Attorney Laura Conover and members of her senior leadership team, and after an extensive data review and drafting by a dedicated subcommittee of experienced prosecutors, the Pima County Attorney’s Office (PCAO) today unveils a set of principles that will lead us away from cash bail. The philosophy is simple:
- If the arrestee poses an ongoing threat of harm to the community, they should be held.
- If the arrestee does not pose an ongoing threat of harm to the community, our prosecutors will recommend release from custody and articulate the conditions of release that will assist the person in returning for their next Court date.
The training of these principles to PCAO prosecutors, however, has been far from simple. In practice, it can be very hard for prosecutors to identify, with limited information, who poses a risk of harm and who does not in the short period following an arrest and before an Initial Appearance.
For instance, is the mere possession of a firearm alone a danger to the community? Surely not. Responsible gun ownership is steadfastly protected in Arizona. Is mere possession of a firearm in the children’s section of a public library, after having been prohibited by a Judge or State mandate to possess a firearm again, a threat to public safety? Yes.
Each decision turns on the unique facts at hand.
Our prosecutors have approximately 30 minutes every morning and every night to formulate their best arguments after every felony arrest, before hearings begin.* These hearings could well be the most important to occur during the life of each case, and PCAO deputy county attorneys will treat them as such.
Pima County residents are currently stuck with a cash bail system that, while outdated and unjust, is mandated by Arizona law.** Until the law changes, PCAO will continue to enforce it as it is proscribed.
When an arrestee poses a risk to community safety, PCAO will argue for a high bond to hold a person until such time as that threat of danger can be addressed. When no such threat is present, PCAO will argue for conditions of release that will best serve and protect Pima County.
* PCAO prosecutors only appear and participate in felony arrest Initial Appearances. No attorneys participate in misdemeanor arrests. Specifically, County Attorney Conover has no jurisdiction over City of Tucson misdemeanor arrests.
** The County Attorney is simultaneously working with community partners on proposed draft legislation that, if passed, will reduce the role of cash in the criminal justice system.