Introducing Pima County

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Release Date: 
Friday, October 9, 2020

Two NLADA AmeriCorps members started the inaugural VISTA program in the Pima County Public Defense Services in August. Below, Jessica, explains the history of the county as a borderland and the importance of public defense within Arizona’s specific judicial environment. 

Pima County is located in southern Arizona along the United States-Mexico border. The County is Arizona’s oldest and was established  by the first territorial Legislature in 1864.[1] Archeological evidence in Pima County’s Santa Cruz River suggests that Pima County is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the United States and is home to what may be the oldest irrigation canals in North America. Pima County has been home to Native Americans since prehistoric times. The Tohono O’odham reservation, is Pima County’s largest Native American reservation and is the second largest Native American reservation in the United States. 42.1% of Pima County’s 9,184 square miles belongs to Native American reservations, specifically the San Xavier, Pascua Yaqui, and Tohono O’odham reservations.[2]

Just over 1 million people currently reside in Pima County, about 548,000 of whom live in Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city. Despite Pima county’s location on the Mexican border and despite almost half of Pima County belonging to Native American reservations, racial demographic estimates suggest that more than 50% of Pima County residents are white. In 2019, more than 16% of people in Pima County lived in poverty,[3] making the Pima County poverty rate higher than the 11.8% poverty rate of the United States as a whole.[4]

The high poverty rate in Pima County makes the work of Pima County Public Defense Services, and each of the offices under the PDS office, a necessity in the community. The Pima County Public Defender's Office was established in 1970 as a small group of lawyers and support staff. Since then, an entire public defense system has been established in Pima County. Overseeing each public defense office in the County is the administrative body, Pima County Public Defense Services. Pima County Public Defense Services provides support, training, and evaluation to each of the other public defense agencies in the county. Those agencies are: Public Defender, Legal Defender (conflict office of Public Defender), Legal Advocate (conflict office of Legal Defender), Public Fiduciary, Office of Court Appointed Counsel, Office of Children’s Counsel, and Mental Health Defender. In order to promote holistic defense, Pima County Public Defense Services ensures dialogue and collaboration between each public defense agency in the county. In addition to the attorneys and support staff working within the different public defense agencies, Pima County Public Defense Services also employs paralegals, clerks, and mitigation specialists.

The Mitigation Team works directly with clients to create plans for those clients to leave jail or prison with housing and other resources. Only some clients meet with mitigation specialists, though, so often times it is attorneys who work with clients to create these plans.  Providing community resources and access to community resources to people accused of crimes in Pima County is especially important because the State of Arizona does not expunge records. Even if a case is entered as Nolle Prosequi, as a Dismissal, or as an Acquittal (at trial) the arrest record and charges stay on a person’s criminal record, making discrimination against people involved in the criminal justice system even more likely. 



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