A new program aims to keep people convicted of DUI out of the county jail during the current public health emergency.

People convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs typically face a sentence that consists of fines, a license suspension, an interlock ignition device installed in their car, and jail time.

But given the current health concerns related to the coronavirus outbreak, DUI offenders in Santa Cruz County will now be able to fulfill part of their jail sentence in their own homes.

The County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday morning voted to establish a Home Detention Program for DUI offenders during a state of emergency, such as the one declared as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Because of the COVID situation, as you are well aware, the jail is not taking in any defendants right now to serve any time, especially in these kinds of cases,” Justice of the Peace Emilio Velasquez said during the board’s telephonic and video meeting on Tuesday.

“So what I’m hoping to do is establish this Home Detention Program, where we can go ahead and have these individuals be detained at home with an electronic monitoring system and also be able (to test them) with a breathalyzer in their homes.”

Velasquez continued that it would be a cost-effective measure for the county, considering that all expenses will be paid by the defendants. He added that, if approved, the new measure would relieve the county of liability issues that might arise due to sick inmates at the county jail.

The supervisors approved the proposal without discussion by a 3-0 vote.

Flexibility needed

Sheriff Antonio Estrada told the NI on Wednesday that, in an effort to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak at the detention center, his department is working closely with the courts to avoid putting new inmates in the jail if other equal sentences could be imposed.

Still, he said, the jail is taking in defendants for more dangerous offenses including violent crimes. He added that, when possible, both the Sheriff’s Office and Nogales Police Department are opting to “long-form” individuals for minor offenses, meaning that they’ll refer the cases to the prosecutor’s office before making an arrest.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Estrada said, the jail was only housing about 40 inmates.

“We have one purpose in mind, that is to provide a healthy environment there. We want to make sure we don’t bring in any large number and then have a outbreak,” Estrada said, adding: “If somebody needs to be booked and held, it’s being done.”

County Attorney George Silva has been vocal about cracking down on DUI offenses in the community, running regular spots on a local radio station to remind the public of the consequences that come with the crime – including time in jail.

“It’s a little bit troubling for me. When you are sentenced to jail, you should do your time in jail,” he said when asked about the new Home Detention Program. “But I understand the flexibility that’s needed during the pandemic and I don’t have a problem with it.”

He added that, under Arizona statutes, the defendant is still required to serve at least one day in the county jail for a DUI offense, even under the Home Detention Program.

State law also states that the defendant must first serve at least 20 percent of the incarceration in jail before being placed under home detention.

But Silva explained that the county’s Home Detention Program would give leeway for the judges to decide when the jail sentence should be completed.

“At the end of the day, you’re still going to have to do those days in custody and the court has the flexibility of when to impose those days,” Silva said. “So, conceivably, the court can wait until we get a handle on the COVID crisis or until that risk isn’t there anymore, and then impose the jail time.”

As for the deterrent effect that jail time is meant to have, Silva said he didn’t believe the Home Detention Program would detract much from that, reiterating that the jail component of the sentence is still there.

“I think people have a different way of prioritizing and the bigger deterrent is the suspension of their license, the fines, and definitely that ignition interlock device,” he said.

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