FREE TO KILL: Is Pima County violating state law?

Probation officers say violent felons are falling through the cracks because current law has no teeth
Published: Jul. 7, 2022 at 10:50 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Pima County probation officers keep a close eye on felons, but now we’ve learned more of them are leaving the department.

We’ve already reported that the department has been understaffed for years making it hard to track violent felons.

Credible sources tell us this latest sudden drop will make matters even worse.

It’s an issue that strikes at the heart of public safety in Pima County.

Probation officers have given me a list of about 10 who have left the department since April.

That’s about the time we launched our Free to Kill Investigation.

I reached out to the probation department last week to confirm the number leaving and have yet to hear back.

These sources came forward to shed light on this issue, but they asked us to disguise their voices out of fear of retaliation.

They say the county is violating state law on caseload limits and the counts are simply too much to handle to keep the community safe.

“It’s impossible,” said a probation officer, “It really is because you can’t work somebody 7 days a week.”

Probation officers say at time they’ve worked up to 80 hour weeks to try to keep track of probationers.

And here’s why: The department reports a more than 20% vacancy rate.

The department provided us with this April data:18 vacancies in standard probation (out of 63) and 4 in Intensive probation (out of 33).

Our sources say the added loss in a short amount of time is devastating to the department.

For years they’ve been told by administrators to “deal with it.”

One probation officer said overtime is now being stopped even though Tucson murder rates are at an all time high.

And as a result, probationers “fall through the cracks because they can’t supervise them adequately,” said one officer.

And they commit more serious crimes like killings.

We’ve investigated about a dozen violent felons recently arrested for murder while on probation.

“So you’re not really spending time with the defendant. You’re not sitting there really assessing, managing, which resources they need, providing support services,. You’re just managing the ones that are behaving badly at the time. And that’s the model right now. That’s just putting out fires,” one probation officer said.

And likely to continue as their caseload counts keep climbing.

The say when probation officers leave the department divvies up their cases and doles them out.

“Another probation officer has to pick up that caseload,” said the probation officer, “along with their current caseload and it’s just really becomes unmanageable.”

Some standard caseloads, they report, have jumped to more than 100 and at times surpass 150.

“There’s no way to manage that many cases. It’s unheard of,” said a probation officer.

The state believes so because a law is on the books that limits the standard caseload count to 65 per officer.

The Pima County Probation Department supplied us with these averages since 2020.

  • 76 (2020)
  • 73 (2021)
  • 74 as of April (2022).

Intensive probation caseloads are limited to 25.

The department reports 29 in 2020, 26 in 2021 and 31 in 2022.

Which begs the question: Why has Pima County been able to violate state law for years?

The probation officers say the law has no teeth. They say vacancy rates and caseloads have been high for years, morale has been low, and they haven’t seen any ramifications at all.

“How come somebody isn’t coming in there and investigating what’s going on?”, the probation officers asks, “You got to look at why are all these probation officers leaving. Why are all these case loads unmanageable? Let’s look at administration, let’s hold them accountable.”

We reached out to the probation department for an explanation and interview. We haven’t heard back, but we also reached out to the state department that oversees probation the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The Director of the Adult Probation Services Division director, Shanda Breed, replied, “While current caseloads do exceed the legal limit, the issue is a matter of circumstance, not intent or neglect. The caseloads are attributed to the available, but unfilled positions in the county’s probation department, which does not result in a violation of the law,” she explained.

However, if the county’s probation department were staffed at full capacity and caseloads were to exceed the average legal limit for three consecutive months, the county would deploy measures to remedy the issue. It would be required to request funds to hire additional probation officers to help meet the need of excessive caseloads.”

In other words, as long as the probation department remains below full capacity it doesn’t have to address the excessive caseloads.

For clarification on the law, I followed up and received this response.

“While caseload issues are a priority in any circumstance, because there are open positions to help address the caseload challenges in Pima County, statutes have not come into play. Caseload challenges should begin to taper off once the available positions are filled.”

We emailed state lawmakers on the Arizona Justice Committee and received no response.

We contacted the Attorney General’s Office about the law and they directed us back to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

We will continue to press on and will provide you an update when information comes in.

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