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Caroline Isaacs: She’s beating the drum for criminal justice reform

Cap Times Q&A

Caroline Isaacs knows how to harmonize.

Whether it’s striking the right chord on criminal justice reform at the Capitol or belting out with her band, Sundust Road, in Tucson, Isaacs gets the job done.

She said she was naive once, believing data alone could change minds. But after 20 years with the American Friends Service Committee, she realized she has to meet people halfway and recognize how far they’re willing to go, and that means working with the right and left, conservatives and progressives alike. That approach has led her down a more nuanced road in the company of folks like longtime Capitol lobbyist Barry Aarons.

Progressives will say to her, “You’re working with him?”

And conservatives will say to him, “You’re working with them?”

But it was just the kind of shakeup the Capitol needed to pay attention to what Isaacs is preaching.

Caroline Isaacs

Caroline Isaacs

So, what’s your perspective on the right these days?

I don’t know what that is, and I don’t find it to be a particularly helpful frame. No group of individuals can be boxed up that way, and if you’re talking about something as nuanced as justice reform, those kinds of labels just aren’t helpful at all because there’s something for everybody to love. If you are all about public safety, you have to acknowledge the system we have is not delivering that at all. If you’re all about cost-savings and not paying taxes and you’re against big government, there’s no bigger government than one that can lock you in a cage.

You’ve come to work with people like Bill Montgomery and Kurt Altman. Are they approaching it in the same way?

Increasingly, yes. It’s fascinating to me that once you set up for yourself this mindset of, I have no enemies in this, and that the only way I can reach my goal is by working with as many as I can, that I can’t afford to write anyone off… it just becomes about people. Kurt Altman is a defense attorney, and he sees how the policies actually impact human people’s lives. And once you see that, it’s very difficult to put everything in boxes and slap labels on them anymore. That’s true of Mr. Montgomery. He’s a guy with a job to do, right? His job is to protect the people of Maricopa County. The way that he wants to go about that has a lot of common ground with what we’re looking at. The kinds of reforms happening in this county are tremendous. Where we differ is on how to make that statewide policy… Justice is supposed to be blind, and it’s supposed to be applied equally to everyone no matter who you are or where you are.

Are we going to continue to see you among the voices leading the charge?

Until they throw me out. This is my passion and 20-year investment, so I’m not going anywhere. I say this every year, which is probably the only way I could keep doing this work without losing my mind, but I do think this year is going to be a big one.

The AFSC is a Quaker organization, right? Explain what that means to me.

Quakers are about as obscure as you can get. Not the same thing as the Amish – no buggies, no bonnets. Oatmeal, yes, but not in the quantities you might expect… One of the fundamental beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends is essentially that there is God in every person… If there is that God in everyone, I cannot take up arms and go shoot people. I cannot sell another person into slavery. I cannot stand by while people are being oppressed and mistreated… In terms of criminal justice work, that is applied. Actually, this is one of our unintended consequences, back in the colonial days, in Pennsylvania – Pennsylvania, founded by Quakers – there was a big movement to create the penitentiary. Whoops. It was a great idea at the time.

At least they tried. 

And to their credit, they’ve since figured out, “OK, let’s not do that.” I myself am not formally a Quaker. I don’t belong to a Quaker meeting. I grew up in Pennsylvania. My best friend in high school was Quaker, so I’m very familiar with the culture. But it’s really just about the why and the core of the work. That if you truly believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, you have to walk that talk. If I were going to adopt some formal religious affiliation, that would be it for sure.

Speaking of the obscure, tell me about the Silver Thread Trio.

The Silver Thread Trio is actually no more. We were Tucson famous, as I like to say, for a while… I’m a musical idiot. I’ve never trained. Can’t read music. Can’t write music. To be in that group with two absolute geniuses was fantastic and just really fun. It was an interesting niche, too. Three-part harmony is not something you find a lot of, so we were also able to collaborate with a lot of Tucson musicians.

The way you described your musical prowess or lack thereof might explain why you played the washboard.

I did. I can’t do anything that has chords. Or notes. So, I just hit things. If I’ve trained in anything, it’s percussion. I studied drums. I studied conga… It was folk music. Folk music is quiet… Folk instrument – washboard. Adds a little rhythm without drowning out the harmonies.

How does one play the washboard? 

One makes it up. No, there are ways to play it that I don’t know… I used metal brushes, like jazz drummers. And I should say, my bandmates will kill me if I don’t say this, I’m in a new band now. It’s a honky-tonk band. I play the drum, so I’ve graduated. I play a drum and a cymbal. I’m in that band with my husband (Bill Hustad) and our friend Sean… We’re working on our album right now. Should be out in fall.

How does singing relate to your work at the Capitol? 

We’re looking for the harmony. We’re trying to find the sweet spot where things blend and you can produce something beautiful. Corny.

Would it be weird to ask you to sing something? 

It’s a little weird.

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