The out-of-state commentators Jenkins and Nguyen give us distortions that are not the truth about prosecutors and prosecutions in Arizona. [Tough-on-crime prosecutors distort truth, block reform.” December 14, 2018]. The Texas duo are not the party to set the cues for our great state, even as we do embark upon continuing innovation in criminal justice. Let me give you a rural county prosecutor’s perspective, and it starts with our territorial times and our march toward statehood.
On February 2, 1848, the United States and Mexico, “through a sincere desire to end the calamities of war which unhappily exits between the two republics”, entered a treaty of “peace, friendship, limits and settlement” with the Republic of Mexico. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is the first significant step toward recognizing an Arizona from the former Mexican Republic. In 1853 the United States purchased the remaining territory making up our current southern boundary (the Gadsden Purchase).
While Texas declared independence and accepted statehood in 1845, another 67 years would pass before Arizona was recognized as a Territory distinct from New Mexico (1863) and then as a state (1912). Arizona’s Constitution was forged by a diverse cultural history, a spirit of independence, and a local distrust for East Coast capitalists who sought to exploit Arizona’s mineral resources through available labor. Arizona author Grady Gammage, Jr., notes that the frontier produced in the American character an independence of spirit along with occasional antisocial tendencies and antipathy toward government control. Rugged individualism made for surly politics. But the point is that in a territory where the landscapes are vast and the people few, individual rights and personal responsibility are the pillars of the Arizona contract. This is our enduring brand, a symbol of our legal history, and the table setting at which we form prosecution goals in our northern Arizona County.
Coconino County is the second largest county in the United States. We are the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined. We are larger than Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Hawaii, Connecticut, Delaware or Rhode Island. Still, we are one of the least densely populated regions in the United States. We are 140,000 citizens in 18,661 square miles, and most of our density occurs in one municipality (Flagstaff). What this means in terms of criminal justice is that we absolutely must place a high expectation on personal responsibility for individual misconduct. Our sheer vastness and our natural limitations require it.
Everyone in the criminal justice system has a role to fulfill and a duty to assume. Criminal justice in Arizona is both action and consequence. We prosecutors must strive always to be accurate in our interpretation of the criminal code and its application to the facts of every case. Our fundamental role consists of two principles: duty and responsibility. We exercise our roles with honor and integrity. We seek the truth and just results. We restore trust in government. When injustice occurs we seek remedies that are consistent with the law and that are also fair and reasoned and complete.
Out-of-state reformers driven by distant aspirations tell stories from elsewhere about prosecutors operating on power and leverage who “bury the truth.” This is a game plan to undermine your beliefs about the integrity of justice in your Arizona. This intentional distortion is shameful and misguided. It hurts any legitimate debate about right and wrong.
To be clear, prosecutors in Arizona are constitutional officers with executive functions. Our oath is to uphold the law and faithfully execute upon it. We often are the first to see trends in public safety and recommend reforms. In Coconino County the crime rate has been descending since 2000, but the types of crimes we see are different than urban Arizona. A unique characteristic for us is the impact of 10 million yearly visitors and the number of international victims whose rights we seek to preserve.
We prosecutors carefully exercise discretion to achieve personal accountability and just results, whether that be fair trials and just pleas, or diversion into “treatment” courts. We seek appropriate sentences, whether probation or prison, that accomplishes justice and restores public safety. We and our partners look beyond the criminal justice system to make improvements elsewhere (health and social programs; schools, etc.) that may significantly reduce that very first crime from occurring and then any new re-offenses.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery previously shed light on positive innovations. I am adding a rural prosecutorial voice to the principle that founded our state: With individual rights comes personal responsibility. There is room for continuous improvement and a better criminal justice system. Prosecutors often lead the way. But let us take our cues from our own history, facts and experiences. And from the testimony of our own people. And from our own blessed landscapes. We have more than enough resources to get us where we need to go on the journey of innovation in criminal justice.
Bill Ring is the Coconino County attorney.