Pima County jail alternative program saves money

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They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that's the case, the City of Tucson should be flattered Pima County has picked up one of its programs. It saves money, and for many, saves a trip to jail.

"We believe we're saving the city a good amount of money," said Deputy Court Administrator Chris Hale.

Since June of 2009, 2,200 defendants have been arrested and released without stepping foot in jail. Which amounts to a savings of $1.1 million.

"It's just efficient, safe and cost effective," said Judge Maria Felix.

The alternative to jail program ushers low level offenders straight to court instead of straight to jail. No booking necessary.

It went into effect countywide Wednesday.

Judge Maria Felix will preside over these cases. She was on standby from 10 to 3 Wednesday.  "So far I haven't had one call," said Judge Felix from the Pima County Justice Court.  "But I'm here, so on top of my regular calendar, I will have these interruptions and address these defendants."

And the parties don't even have to be in the same place.  Across the street Judge Maria Felix can talk to the defendant during the initial appearance while the defendant sits in a superior court holding cell. And it's all done via video conference.

"We have a holding cell here equipped with video conferencing equipment," said Judge Felix

Inside a holding cell a defendant can look at a screen with a camera mounted on top. It's a simple and quick process, that can save taxpayers up to $200 a day. It frees up jail space and gets deputies back out on the streets faster.

"The officers who arrest these minor offense will be released quicker to the community so they can continue protecting us," said Judge Felix.

Critics say the program can be too lenient. But Judge Felix says the program is only open to those who commit victim-less crimes. If there's a victim, there's no alternative, you'll be booked right into jail.

Deputy Court Administrator Chris Hale says the department is currently working on a study that looks at recidivism rates to determine how effective the alternative to jail program really is.