Jared Keenan: Taking the job of a public defender to a systemic level

Ben Giles//December 26, 2017

Jared Keenan: Taking the job of a public defender to a systemic level

Ben Giles//December 26, 2017

Jared Keenan (Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)
Jared Keenan (Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)

Jared Keenan is the newest hire by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, one of three staffing additions the organization will make thanks to a surge in donations following President Trump’s election in 2016. Keenan becomes the first ACLU staffer in Arizona based in northern Arizona – he and his wife call Prescott home – but every Wednesday the New Jersey native and Boston University law school graduate hops on his motorcycle and rides down to Phoenix to further his work as a staff attorney at the ACLU focused on criminal justice.

Cap Times Q&AWhere are you from?

I’m originally from outside of Philadelphia. I went to law school in Boston at Boston University. My first job out of law school was at the public defender’s office in Mohave County, in Kingman. My wife and I then moved back to Boston and I was a public defender there for a few years. Then the two of us moved to Prescott and we were both public defenders until I took the job with the ACLU.

How’d you end up in Arizona?

Well, I graduated law school in 2008 and there were a lot of budget freezes and hiring freezes.

Graduating during the recession was terrible timing. I would know.

Yes. So I basically just applied to any public defender’s office that had an opening, and I interviewed with the office in Mohave County and it seemed like the place to go. It was a great place to start off.

How so?

Like most public defender jobs, they really just throw you into it right away. You are in court almost immediately. You are litigating almost immediately. You are fighting legal battles and legal issues and going to trial almost immediately. Outside of prosecutors, public defenders are really the only way to do that right out of law school.

Did you always want to be a public defender?

Not when I started law school. I wasn’t sure, actually, what I wanted to be. But about halfway through I met the woman who’s now my wife and she kind’ve really convinced me that there’s really no other job to do.

And you and your wife enjoyed Arizona so much you came back.

We do like Arizona a lot. We like hiking, camping, we do all that here a bit easier than back on the East Coast. The cost of living and city life was a lot higher in Boston, and that’s the primary reason we decided to come back to Arizona. Like I said, my wife and I both were public defenders, and as far as legal careers go, they’re not the highest paid, and we needed to find a place that we could afford to do that.

How does your work as a public defender translate into your new job?

As a public defender, you’re basically on the front lines of criminal justice reform. But the difficulty is that you are representing individual clients, individual people, and not tackling systemic issues necessarily or larger issues. You’re trying to protect the rights of individual people as opposed to sort of the higher level systemic change that I’m working on now.

What do you hope to accomplish?

The ACLU affiliates and the national organization around the country are working on the smart justice campaign. They’re trying to reduce the prison population and incarceration rates by about 50 percent around the country. Arizona is a top priority in that campaign. Arizona has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the country, and there is a lot of work that can be done and needs to be done in Arizona in regards to criminal justice reform. That’s sort of how it ties in with public defense — the issues that I was working on as a public defender are now the issues that I’m working on at the ACLU.

Any issues in particular?

One issue that I’m working on now is bail reform. Specifically, reforming the cash bail system in Arizona. As a public defender, I would often represent people who were basically in jail prior to trial when they’re presumed innocent solely because they couldn’t afford to post cash bail. So there’s a movement around the country to sort of change that so that people are not being held in jail while they’re presumed innocent simply because they can’t afford bail.

Is that going to be accomplished legislatively or through litigation?

Yes. I think with all the issues I’ll be working on with the ACLU, there’s always a possibility of a litigation component, but we certainly are not opposed in any way to try and work with the Legislature and make the fix that way. In many ways, that’d be easier, but sometimes, just not the way things play out. So yes, the goal is to sort of work both angles at the same time using litigation as part of our long-term policy change goals.

There was a push for bail reform last year that didn’t make it out of the Legislature. Does that effort still stand a chance?

As far as the need for change, I think Arizona is greatly in need of some serious change to its criminal justice system. Arizona locks up far too many people for far too long, so there’s a lot of movement that Arizona can make. Arizona is an outlier when it comes to how long we incarcerate people. When you’re sentenced to prison, you have to serve at least 85 percent (of your sentence) for all crimes — violent, nonviolent, everything. There are almost no other states that require that length of time to be served before you can be released on parole for nonviolent offences. So there’s a lot of movement that can happen in Arizona… I think it’s going to be a hard fight in a state like Arizona. But like I said, because there’s so many areas that need help, I think we can move the pendulum in the right direction.