Pima County works to reduce overrepresentation of Native Americans in its jails

Phoenix attorney Danny Ortega, who specializes in civil rights cases, says keeping people in jail “really breaks down the structure of the community and of the family. There’s just a recycling of people in prisons and jails.” (Photo courtesy of Ortega Law Firm)

Left: Valena Beety is a law professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. (Photo courtesy of Valena Beety) Right: Pima County Attorney Laura Conover. (Photo courtesy of Pima County Attorney’s Office)

PHOENIX – Selso Villegas knows the criminal justice system well. His daughter has battled a drug addiction for years, so for the past decade, he has cared for his grandchildren, including two grandsons who have been incarcerated. But as an American Indian, Villegas and his family face additional hurdles.

“We were conquered and we were put on reservations, isolated,” said Villegas, executive director of water resources for the Tohono O’odham Nation. “So I think our biggest problem for young men and women is that we were stripped from our social development.”

Villegas’ grandsons are a part of a disproportionately large group of American Indians held in southern Arizona jails. Data from the Safety and Justice Challenge – which is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – shows that Native Americans are 1.8 times as likely as white Americans to be booked into a Pima County jail.

“Racial bias and racial bias compounded by poverty or economic struggle really make certain communities much more vulnerable to getting involved in and trapped up in the criminal legal system,” said Valena Beety, a law professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

Villegas blames colonization for the situation Native Americans are in today.

Selso Villegas attends the Native American Wellness Day Pascua Yaqui in August 2019, representing Pima County’s Safety and Justice Challenge. (Photo courtesy of Selso Villegas)

“We were conquered, and we’re put on reservations, isolated,” he said. “So I think our biggest problem for young men and women or men is that we were stripped from our social development.”

Every year in the United States, more than 10 million people are jailed, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. The Safety and Justice Institute says about 75% of them are behind bars for nonviolent offenses related to traffic, property, drug or public order offenses. And, since 2000, the Native American jail population nationwide is up 85%, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

The vast majority of people in jail are awaiting trial, meaning they haven’t been convicted of any crime. And jail time for any reason can have a cascading effect.

“Even three days of being in jail can mean you lose your job,” Beety said. “That can mean you’re abandoning your children legally, so your custody of your children could be in question.”

Danny Ortega, a Phoenix attorney who specializes in civil rights, said the goal should be to keep people out of jail.

“Because we all know that when you keep people in jail, particularly poor people, it really breaks down the structure of the community and of the family,” he said. “There’s just a recycling of people in prisons and jails.”

With a parent behind bars, he said, “then those children, because of poverty, begin to deal with the adversity that their parents dealt with. Then they become involved in the same activity to survive, and so it’s a survival issue.”

That’s why Pima County in 2016 started to address the drivers of its jail population with financial support from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.

“Our main strategies at that point were to reduce the jail population safely without impact to community safety,” said Kate Vesley, the director of justice services for Pima County. “And also to reduce racial and ethnic disparities at disproportionality and the justice system.”

The county has implemented such solutions as pretrial behavioral-health diversion programs and warrant resolution. The measures have reduced the number of incarcerated and addressed some racial concerns, officials say.

David Sanders is the chief probation officer for Pima County. (Photo courtesy of David Sanders)

In 2014, the average daily jail population was 2,136. Today, it’s about 1,700 inmates.

“It had gotten down last year into the 1,300s which was a bit of a historic low, because of COVID, and it has crept back up since then,” Pima County Attorney Laura Conover said.

“The criminal justice system has been inherently racially and ethnically disparate, if not intentionally focused in a punitive way upon racial and ethnic minorities,” she said. “When we are honest about that, then we make sure our policies going forward address that.”

One way is through the warrant resolution program, in which county probation officers try to persuade certain offenders who have skipped court dates to surrender without the threat of jail time for failure to appear.

“These are the people that seem to be their own worst enemies,” said David Sanders, the county’s chief probation officer. “They’re not necessarily a serious threat to public safety. And if they can be re-engaged in treatment and probation supervision, they’re much better off than living in the shadows, with a felony warrant outstanding, not able to work or able to participate in normal events in the community.”

Villegas, as the executive director of water resources for the Tohono O’odham, can use his influence to facilitate a relationship between the tribe and Pima County. He’s a member of Safety and Justice Challenge and works on a variety of initiatives – including warrant resolution.

“I encourage our tribal members, the Pascua Yaqui and Indigenous people that I know that have warrants,” he said. “When I see them, I tell them, ‘You need to go to Pima County and tell them you want to clear up your own failure to appear warrants.’”

Selso Villegas accepts the Martin Luther King Community Service Award in January 2017. (Photo by Andy Morales, courtesy of Selso Villegas)

Still, Pima County has a long way to go in addressing racial disparities.

“We’re only now beginning to dig into the systemic impact that over-policing and over incarceration have had on communities of color,” Vesley said.

The county tracks racial inequity at various steps in the criminal process. For example, the 2020 Pima County probation annual report shows Native Americans make up 4.4% of the county’s census rate and probation population, but they represent 6.3% of probation revocations.

“We’d never looked at it (race), and the MacArthur grant kind of opened our eyes to that,” Sanders said.

Now the probation department publishes racial and ethnic disparities each year.

“In theory, our revocation rate should not be any higher than our census rate, and that’s our goal,” he said.

But change can’t come soon enough for Villegas.

“There’s very few people out in our nation that are really advocates for change, and I’m one of those people that they want to advocate for change because these are community members,” he said. “And we do need them to come back home. There are 9.7 million of us left; every one of us counts. By 2030, we may not have that number.”

News Reporter, Phoenix

Kylie Cochrane expects to graduate in May 2022 with a master’s degree in journalism. Cochrane, who has worked at KPNX, Arizona PBS and the Knight-Cronkite News Lab, is working in the Phoenix News Bureau.