PHOENIX (AP) — The risks from coronavirus are leading to criminal justice changes in Arizona that would have previously seemed impossible in such a law-and-order state: Some elected sheriffs are calling for the release of certain offenders from jail and urging police agencies to issue citations rather than arrest people.
So far, 50 inmates have been released in Coconino County, and the sheriff of Pima County has proposed a series of steps to reduce his inmate population, such as either releasing 135 people jailed on probation violations or sending them to state prisons. It’s unclear whether releases related to COVID-19 have occurred in Maricopa and Pima counties, Arizona’s two most populous counties.
Coconino County Sheriff Jim Driscoll, who worked with the courts to reduce his jail population through methods such as bond reductions, said he wasn’t advocating for amnesty for people accused of committing crimes and instead was 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.”
At least 104 COVID-19 cases have been reported in Arizona as of Saturday morning, leading to one death. Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher said Friday night the person who died was a city employee in his 50s with underlying health conditions.
The man worked for the Aviation Department at a remote location and had “minimal public interaction” at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and related facilities, Zuercher said in an email to city employees.
The Navajo Nation on Friday broadened a stay-at-home order beyond one community to apply to all reservation residents. All non-essential businesses also were ordered to close on the reservation, which includes parts of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah.
Officials on the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation, have put Chilchinbeto on lockdown: No visitors in, and no leaving except to get food or medical supplies.
“We are getting many reports of people still being out in public and putting elders and everyone at risk,” tribal President Jonathan Nez in a statement.
For most people, COVID-19 causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, older adults and people with health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
No cases have been reported in Arizona’s jails and prisons, though they are believed to be vulnerable spots for the spread of the coronavirus because inmates with compromised health live in close quarters.
Across Arizona, sheriff employees have suspended jail visitation, are checking to see if people being booked are showing symptoms and have taken inventories of gloves, masks and other supplies.
To limit contact with jails, Driscoll said people charged with misdemeanors should be issued citations rather than be arrested. In most nonviolent felony arrests, officers should submit reports to prosecutors who will issue warrants that will be handled later.
Driscoll said people who commit crimes such as aggravated assault, domestic violence and homicide will continue to be arrested and booked into jail.
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone’s office, which has custody of 7,500 inmates, said the sheriff has no intention of prematurely releasing inmates without court orders to do so.
“Should circumstances obligate him to consider unorthodox steps he will be pragmatic in his decisions,” the agency’s said in a statement. “Public safety will always be the dominant influence in his decisions.”
In an email Monday to sheriff’s employees, Penzone said officers should use citations rather than make arrests in cases where it is appropriate and doesn’t endanger the public. “I empower you to make the best, safest and most ethical decision in these circumstances, never negating ethical standards,” Penzone wrote.
At least one defendant in metro Phoenix has asked a judge to release him from jail, but that request was denied earlier this week.
In a memo obtained by The Associated Press, Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier wrote on Wednesday that his detention center can’t handle a large number of quarantined inmates, saying his commanders are hindered by the size of the jail’s population and its lack of housing space.
Napier proposed suspending the sentences of people who serve their sentences on weekends or requiring them to complete their punishments all at once. Napier also wants the courts to consider commuting the sentences of all people convicted of a nonviolent misdemeanor who have served half of their sentences.
Napier wrote that he was discouraging — though not prohibiting — local police agencies from booking people on misdemeanors.
Napier later told the AP in an email that his memo was intended to guide discussions with a county administrator on opportunities to reduce the jail population. Napier said sheriffs can’t unilaterally spring people from jail and that releases are a matter for judges and prosecutors.
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.”
Associated Press journalist Paul Davenport contributed.