Boise & Garden City

Ada County seeks $3.9 million grant to help people in crisis

Ada County officials hope to keep more people from being locked up in jail if they obtain a grant to build a community safety center and develop programs to assist people in crisis.
Ada County officials hope to keep more people from being locked up in jail if they obtain a grant to build a community safety center and develop programs to assist people in crisis.

Idaho’s most populous county is seeking money for a community safety net to find a place for people who are often taken to jail because of the lack of another option.

Ada County is a finalist for a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to find ways to help those in crisis without jailing them.

Last spring, the Chicago-based foundation provided a $150,000 grant to the Ada County Sheriff’s Office to study ways to improve social justice and lower the inmate population.

Law enforcement and court officials spent six months attending meetings and compiling research to map out a plan that would do both. They’re seeking a $3.9 million grant to put the plan into place.

Last year, the foundation created a $75 million Safety and Justice Challenge to change the way America thinks about and uses jails. The foundation pledged to support cities and counties seeking to create a fairer and more effective public safety system that would save taxpayer money and lead to better social outcomes.

“For too long America has incarcerated too many people unnecessarily, spending too much money without improving public safety,” Julia Stasch, the foundation president, said in a statement. “Jails too often serve as warehouses for those too poor to post bail, nonviolent offenders, or people with mental illness.”

If the grant is approved, the largest piece would go toward creation of a center to provide services for people in crisis. It could assist the homeless, people suffering from mental illness or those struggling with substance abuse. Those currently are people who might find themselves locked up because of a lack of suitable alternatives.

Trained staff members would “triage” the people brought to the center and figure out treatment, the Sheriff’s Office said. That could include basic medical care, a mental health assessment or a spot in a secure sobering station before connecting people to community resources.

The center would be open to anyone in need, not just those contacted by police.

The initial round of funding would help establish the center and get it going, with government, community and private funding providing operating funds in the years ahead. Officials believe much of that could come from the savings derived by diverting people from costly jail cells and hospital beds.

The center would be modeled after the Center for Health Care Services near San Antonio, Texas. Ada County work group members visited the center and studied its operation for several months.

In 2014, one-fifth of all Ada County Jail bookings were for “compliance violations,” such as failure to appear, contempt of court and probation missteps. However, 750 people arrested that year on low-risk misdemeanors didn’t have the money to post bail and had to remain in jail.

During the same period, 1,400 people charged with more serious crimes had the money to post bail and be released while their cases made their way through the system.

The county is proposing an increase in the number of accused offenders who could be released from jail on their own recognizance. Those accused of failing to appear or jailed on a probation violation could be eligible for release.

“Often unrecognized is the risk and liability in holding someone in jail simply because it’s easy or it’s the way we’ve always done it. Incarceration can have a significant impact on a defendant, their families and the economy,” Ada County Sheriff Stephen Bartlett said in a statement. “Success will be understanding and balancing all the different types of risk — and reserving jail space for people who pose a threat to others.”

The county has also launched a plan to work with judges to complete more comprehensive presentence assessments of people charged with crimes and utilize data to predict outcomes.

Research revealed that homeless black and Hispanic people stayed in jail longer than others. There was also a slightly higher arrest rate for blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans charged with misdemeanors. Caucasians and Asians were given citations at a slightly higher rate than taken to jail.

Ada County law enforcement agencies say they will work to reduce this rate through education and training, along with a renewed focus on community policing in minority communities.

“We need to recognize risk extends well beyond the risk to flee or the risk to re-offend,” Bartlett said. “A risk to reoffend is not necessarily a risk to public safety in some lower-level offenses.”

Nearly 200 law enforcement jurisdictions from across the U.S. applied for the Safety and Justice Challenge grant.

The organization selected 20 finalists, including large cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston to smaller locations.

A final series of interviews with the finalists will take place later this month. The foundation will then choose 10 agencies for the next round of funding.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell