Ada County will use a $1 million grant to work toward reducing the jail population by 15-19 percent, the Ada County Sheriff's Office announced this month.

The grant, from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, will be used to increase staffing across Ada County’s justice system.

The Ada County jail, with a capacity of 1,128 inmates, has had close to 1,000 inmates for the last several months, sheriff's office spokesman Patrick Orr said. The jail's capacity is 1,224 inmates when including the work release facility across the street.

The grant will fund the following efforts in Ada County:

1) Improving the cash-based bond system.

"If you have access to money, you can pay a bond and be released from jail while a criminal case moves through the court system. That doesn’t really work for people on limited incomes," according to the sheriff's office Oct. 4 blog post. "So we’ve made some moves already to improve."

Ada County’s public defenders and city and county prosecutors are now doing “jail sweeps” to identify inmates with low-level misdemeanor charges who can’t afford bond. They work closely with those inmates to resolve those cases and get them out of jail.

The Idaho Supreme Court approved a pilot project, which took effect June 1, that allows for anyone arrested in Ada County on driving without privileges (first through third offense) or failure to provide proof of insurance to be released on their own recognizance instead of having to post a cash bond. 

"We are hoping success in Ada County will result in this becoming law," according to the sheriff's office.

At least 32 people have avoided jail time because of the changes, the sheriff's office said. According to the blog post, people charged with driving without privileges or failure to obtain insurance are statistically more likely to also booked on other charges that don’t allow them to be released on their own recognizance. The sheriff's office said it's working to figure out if there are other changes it can make to expand that type of release.

2) Opening a new office space and video conference room.

The sheriff's office has created new office space and public defender/inmate meeting rooms inside the jail and set up a new video conference room to make case processing more efficient.

A major contributor to jail population is when people who are charged with a misdemeanor and fail to show up for court get arrested on failure to appear charges.

"This can create an arrest cycle that is hard to break," according to the sheriff's office. "We surveyed people charged with (failure to appear) and found that 50 percent said they just didn’t know or forgot about their scheduled court date; 24 percent cited transportation issues; 8 percent said they had work or childcare conflicts.

"Our plan combats this phenomenon is the creation of the notification system that will allow the Ada County Clerk of Court staff to send out alerts – including text, email, and phone calls — about upcoming court dates; a new unit at the Public Defender’s Office to help clients navigate the court system and attend their hearings; and increased access to public transportation."

3) Reducing disparities based on race.

Ada County is also working to reduce disparities for Native and African American inmates in the jail.

Ada County’s population is 85.3 percent white, non-Hispanic individuals, with 2.5 percent African American and .2 percent Native American populations, according to the sheriff's office. The jail population for African Americans is 2.9 percent and .4 percent for Native Americans.

Ada County law enforcement agencies will work to reduce this rate through education, training and a renewed focus on community policing in minority communities, according to the sheriff's office.

The sheriff's office is mandating implicit bias training for all employees and has selected three employees to become trainers, who will create specific lesson plans for commissioned and civilian employees.

The office is also proposing Idaho’s Peace Officer Standards and Training — which certifies all law enforcement officers in the state — to make implicit bias training part of their curriculum.

ABOUT THE GRANT

The MacArthur Foundation selected Ada County as a finalist for the Safety and Justice Challenge three years ago. Since then, the county has worked to create a sustainable plan to reduce Ada County’s jail population and to promote social justice.

"Our answer to the challenge is to make needed changes to Ada County’s justice system — and to add eight more people in key positions, including more inmate case managers and court clerks — to make that happen," according to the blog post.

In 2016 the county asked for $3.9 million from the MacArthur Foundation, most of which would have gone to the creation of a Community Safety Center. The center would have provided services to people in crisis.

"Like those suffering from mental illness or struggling with substance abuse — who now often find themselves in jail for lack of any other options," according to the sheriff's office.

The county decided, however, that this plan would have duplicated efforts by the state, which is opening the Pathways Community Crisis Center in Boise in December. This center, less than a mile away from the sheriff's office at 7192 Potomac Drive, will provide assessment, treatment and referrals for people who are experiencing a crisis related to mental health or substance abuse disorders.

"We will work closely with the state and our local health and public safety agencies to use that facility once it gets built and staffed," according to the sheriff's office. 

NEW JOBS

The MacArthur award of $1 million will pay for eight new jobs. Those include:

  • Two public defender case managers to work closely with inmates to help them understand the court system and help them get to hearings.
  • An additional pretrial release case manager (to join the current staff of six) to do risk assessments on everybody arrested in Ada County and provide recommendations for judges — and one pretrial release records technician for clerical support.
  • Two court clerks who will oversee the text message notification system.
  • A planning analyst who will continue to work on jail reduction strategies and identify solutions as the county's plan evolves.
  • A Safety and Justice Program manager to make sure strategies are implemented and to work with the state of Idaho on the implementation of the Behavioral Health Community Crisis Center.

For information on the Safety and Justice Challenge, visit safetyandjusticechallenge.org.

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