by Toni Denis
Yavapai County Sheriff Scott Mascher seemed emotionally drained on a recent Monday morning in August.
His aunt had died of Covid-19 a few days earlier, and when he met to discuss the new Prescott jail with the Oath Keepers of Yavapai County that weekend, he’d been stunned at the hostility directed toward him and the county supervisors.
“A lot of people were mad at me, but if they had asked (questions) over the last eight years, a lot of it would have been cleared up,” he said.
Last December, when the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors voted to move forward with plans to seek a $64 million bond to build a new jail in Prescott, approving an 18% property-tax increase simultaneously to fund it, few people publicly opposed the decision in comments to the board or letters to the media.
The 101,000-square-foot Yavapai County Criminal Justice Center Complex will include: two courtrooms; offices for the county attorney, public defenders, judges and clerk of the court; a mental-health-assessment facility with eight beds; and the 144-bed jail, its kitchen, cafeteria, laundry facilities and other associated spaces. While architectural drawings for the project include potential expansion up to 600 beds, County Administrator Phil Bourdon said that no additional phases are planned. It may take up to three years to complete the complex.
This spring, a perfect storm of events has revived public debate. Not only does the global pandemic portend budget shortfalls for 2021 and beyond, but jails are releasing inmates early to protect them from the fast-spreading virus. The Black Lives Matter protests have led to probing questions about law-enforcement policies, unjust prosecution of the poor and minorities, and the harsh sentencing that causes crowded jails. Even Mascher cites the trend as an impediment to recruiting and hiring new officers, adding that staff morale was hurt by protests against police and criticism about the jail.
Taxpayers have been motivated to protest with signs and petitions, questioning every aspect of the decision, particularly since many were under the impression that they’d rejected building a new jail twice when sales-tax referendums were on the ballot in 2008 and 2014.
Add a county election and candidates who are running on opposing the tax increase and/or the jail, and taxpayers have been motivated to protest with signs and petitions, questioning every aspect of the decision, particularly since many were under the impression that they’d rejected building a new jail twice when sales-tax referendums were on the ballot in 2008 and 2014.
Mascher cites several justifications for building a new jail, some of which are easily verifiable.
Successful Diversion Programs
Mental health has been a focus of the department since at least 2015, when the Sheriff was able to get state health insurance (AHCCCS) funding in place for inmates before release, so those who need medication and ongoing treatment can get it immediately rather than spiral back into the system because they can’t afford it. The plan includes training law enforcement officers ranging from Highway Patrol to the Jerome Police to handle mental-illness and drug-abuse calls. They contact one of the mental-health provider agencies throughout the County offering intervention programs intended to keep someone in crisis out of jail, and get them help. If it’s Prescott, for instance, West Yavapai Guidance Clinic or Southwest Behavioral would likely be the resource. Other agencies include Spectrum and Terros mobile crisis teams. Spectrum Healthcare also contracts with the County to assess inmates.
Mascher said the program is considered a model in the state. More than 1,000 people were diverted from jail in the first year. Both pre-arrest and post-arrest diversion through the Reach Out program have lowered recidivism, as shown in results of a Northern Arizona University study from 2018-2019. The average is now 16%, as compared to the state average of 28%.
Crowding Due to “Classification”
According to Capt. Jeff Newnum, head of the Detention Services Division, the average daily jail population has been over capacity for more than three years. The total number of beds in the jail are never all available for use to accomodate state-mandated classifications. Those classified as violent offenders are a risk to other inmates, so they stay alone in a cell. Each cell has two beds. Currently 43 inmates take up 86 beds of the total 644. The unit for female offenders has 120 beds, and none of those are available to men. Sex offenders are separated from other offenders into their own unit for their own safety, because the rest of the jail population preys on them. Gang members and offenders with accomplices must be separated from one another, too.
“Even though Proposition 508 says inmates should have beds, we have to put 30 to 40 on the floor because we don’t have enough beds for each classification,” Newnum said.
Inmates sleep on the floor in plastic “boats” (think flat canoes) with thin mattresses inside them. It means overcrowding in the cells on a regular basis.
Covid-19 Quarantine Pods
While many jails and prisons report widespread outbreaks of the virus, Yavapai County has only had three cases recorded as of this writing. Any new offender is placed in a quarantined area until they are tested or two weeks go by without symptoms. This also more space than usual. to make more room, judges allowed the release of 100 low-risk inmates up to April.
Our only jail that can be used for overnight stays is the 644-bed facility in Camp Verde, so anyone held for a court hearing is transported there. That requires buses and staff to drive them, in addition to officers to ensure safety. Then if they need to see a judge with an attorney present, they must be transported back to court in Prescott. That requires leaving early in the morning, holding in the old jail, separation of the various classifications of offenders, then transport of each group by van to the courthouse. The department estimates that cost at around $2 million each year, and the County also loses the availability of law-enforcement staff for hours to the long drive.
Safe Prisoner Transfers to Courtrooms
The Yavapai County Courthouse in Prescott was built in 1916, when the county’s population was a small fraction of what it is today. We're now approaching 250,000 people, whicih will trigger the federal requirement to add another superior court. Additionally, transferring defendants into the courtroom for trial, particularly if they are charged with violent crime, has become burdensome because of the difficulty in maintaining safety. Two courtrooms in the new jail would reduce the amount of time and staff needed.
Lack of Expansion Alternatives
Some critics say the County should expand the existing jails, both the main one in Camp Verde and the old one in Prescott, but consultants say this makes no financial sense. The 40-year-old Prescott jail would require a multimillion-dollar renovation to add a fire-suppression system, and isn’t large enough to meet current safety requirements, as pointed out in a 1998 US Department of Justice report. The Camp Verde jail cannot easily be expanded, and lacks space for programs. The Chinn Report, completed by a consultant in 2015, advised against retrofitting either as expensive and inefficient.
While the crime rate has been dropping steadily for 17 years, population growth has increased bookings by 10% each year, says Newnum, adding that all income levels are represented in the jail population. Most are from the Prescott side of Mingus Mountain.
While the arguments for a new jail are compelling, critics generally don’t care. Raising property taxes in a year when some people wonder whether they will be able to maintain a mortgage or keep a roof over their heads strikes many as a tone-deaf move by the County, which signed the bond papers in April, after the virus was already spreading widely in the US. Others are upset that the jail will be built within the City of Prescott rather than outside City limits, particularly some new homeowners in the nearby Prescott Lakes developments. A recent online discussion on the app Nextdoor elicited nearly 300 comments on the plan.
Mascher points out that the jail will hold Prescott-area offenders, most of whom are already living in the community. It’s been at least five years since the jail accepted any prisoners from federal marshals for 48-hour holds before they could be transferred to prisons.
Another criticism is that low-level drug offenders are still being jailed. While Mascher is adamant that those who don’t distribute drugs or possess dangerous drugs (fentanyl, methamphetamine, etc.) are no longer are held in jail, people remain skeptical. The county attorney has a reputation for pursuing punitive charges against drug offenders, most of whom rely on public defenders, who to avoid trial usually accept plea-bargain offers — often including jail time.
Nearing the end of his career under public fire, Sheriff Mascher says that he’s proud of what he’s been able to achieve by reducing the mental-health portion of the jail population from 52% in 2016 to 19% in 2020.
“We’re still not done,” Mascher said. “One of the goals Jeff (Newnum) and Dave Rhodes (candidate for Sheriff) have is when people who are enrolled in AHCCCS are arrested, the federal government suspends it, so when they get out they’ve lost their insurance. We’re trying to get legislation on the federal level to stop suspending insurance without due process. It affects us getting the health care people need. They can’t afford, physically, to lose that benefit. … we’re talking with the National Sheriffs Association and the US Attorney General about changing that.”
Toni Denis is a frequent contributor to 5enses.