Issacs: Tucsonans wants a holistic approach to safety, not a bigger jail

Caroline Isaacs is the executive director of Just Communities Arizona,
an Arizona-based nonprofit that works to create, foster and resource new
models for safety and justice outside the current system of
criminalization and incarceration.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors will soon be presented with a proposal to build a new, bigger county jail, with a price tag of nearly $400 million. This is the moment when our county leadership must decide whether it’s going to prioritize investing in our communities or locking them up.

Our organization, Just Communities Arizona, has a good idea of the choice Tucsonans want them to make.

Last year, JCA conducted a survey of people across the city of Tucson asking about a range of quality-of-life issues, including housing, education, jobs and public safety. More than 1,200 of you—our neighbors—responded to the Reimagining Community Safety survey, which was partly funded by the city.

What the survey revealed is that Tucsonans are deeply troubled about housing and homelessness. When asked where they want resources invested to create greater community safety, affordable housing topped the list, chosen by 52.1 percent of respondents. And homelessness was their primary community concern, topping all other issues that Tucson faces.

The survey also revealed that Tucsonans do not view law enforcement as a solution to the problems they face. Just four percent stated that they want “more police” in their communities. And absolutely no one asked for a new, bigger county jail.

Perhaps this is because a growing proportion of our families have personally been impacted by incarceration and criminalization. Nearly 40 percent of respondents reported that they or a loved one or family member have been arrested or incarcerated. Many of us have witnessed first-hand the negative impacts of an enforcement-only approach to safety. We know that the root causes of crime are complicated and nuanced—addiction, mental illness and trauma. Incarceration does not fix these problems; it exacerbates them.

Tucson residents know the right solutions. When our survey asked, “What resources would you like to see more of in your community?” the top responses were:

  1. affordable housing (52.1 percent)
  2. affordable and accessible medical/mental care (37.4 percent)
  3. better resourced schools (27 percent)

Similarly, participants identified the three most important solutions for reducing racial and socio-economic inequities as:

  1. community-centered alternatives to incarceration (44 percent)
  2. more accessible mental health and substance abuse services (39 percent)
  3. more affordable housing (36 percent)

The results of the Reimagining Community Safety survey clearly demonstrate that Tucson residents recognize the importance of addressing people’s basic needs as part of a holistic approach to safety. In the survey, we told our leadership what we want: Affordable housing, quality education, accessible health care and resourced communities. Not a new jail.

Imagine the positive impact of a $400 million investment in what Tucsonans actually want in order to be safer and healthier. Let’s hope for all our sakes that the board chooses an innovative path forward over the same old investments in ineffective institutions.