Commission begins discussion on criminal justice data

Julia Shumway//September 26, 2019

Commission begins discussion on criminal justice data

Julia Shumway//September 26, 2019

Close up view on conceptual keyboard - Law symbol (blue key)
Close up view on conceptual keyboard – Law symbol (blue key)

The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission started work this week on developing a definitive set of data lawmakers can refer to while drafting changes to criminal justice policy, but advocates for reform fear the commission will do nothing more than slap a state logo on a faulty report long pushed by prosecutors.

Commission chairwoman and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said she saw a need for a “common data framework” when she and other commission members, most of whom are prosecutors or law enforcement officials, met with legislators who questioned why they saw such different reports from prosecutors and reform-minded groups. 

The authors of those reports and other advocates for changing Arizona’s criminal justice laws were not invited to participate in discussions about the data. By excluding them, the commission seems to be taking the position that only law enforcement officials and prosecutors should have a say in how the criminal justice system is set up, said Darrell Hill, American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona policy director. 

“It’s just a continuation of the closed-off tactics we’ve seen from ACJC and the criminal justice community,” Hill said. “Instead of having a conversation, they want to control the conversation.”

A five-hour commission meeting September 25 started with a presentation from Steve Twist, the architect of the state’s criminal justice code. Twist spent much of his nearly hour-long talk praising the code he drafted in the late 1970s, and later additions like the 1993 truth-in-sentencing law that requires inmates to serve 85% of their sentences before they become eligible for release. 

Lawmakers should avoid pursuing “reforms based on myths,” Twist said, adding that supporters of reform movements haven’t provided adequate proof of their claims that the justice system is broken.

“There are those who say we have a mass incarceration problem that does not contribute to public safety and that taxpayers can no longer afford,” Twist said. “There are claims that are worth studying, but they are claims. They are not conclusions.”

The meeting wasn’t intended to be a referendum on any sentencing reports, Polk said, but rather an opportunity to learn more about the data available. Still, she ended the meeting by indicating that she doesn’t believe all data is worth studying.

“The amount of data feels overwhelming to me,” Polk said. “Maybe there’s other data we should be collecting, but do we really want that data? Do we need more? What’s that snapshot at any given time that we should be looking at?” 

Polk is also the chairwoman of the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, which has produced four reports in the past decade concluding that the state’s criminal justice system correctly puts repeat and violent offenders behind bars. 

She suggested at the criminal justice commission’s July meeting that the commission’s Statistical Analysis Center, rather than the prosecutors’ council, produce future versions of that report, according to meeting minutes.

The prosecutors’ report is based on data provided by the Department of Corrections, which critics say doesn’t paint a full picture of sentencing policy. Among other criticisms, reform advocates say the report misleadingly conflates violent offenders and people with multiple convictions, putting murderers and petty criminals in the same box. 

Groups, such as the American Friends Service Committee, have done their own research on state sentencing laws, including a report that concluded that the state spends more than half a million dollars each day to incarcerate people whose only crime was drug possession.

Rebecca Fealk, a program coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee, told committee members she was surprised the organization wasn’t invited to talk when its reports were being questioned. Fealk had the five minutes afforded members of the public to speak, rather than the 30 minutes or more offered most presenters. 

The Quaker organization’s research shouldn’t be written off, Fealk said. 

“We don’t want to be discredited,” she said. “We want to help.”

The commission heard presentations from the Department of Corrections, adult probation services and court administrative offices, but not any of the organizations that have produced their own reports on criminal justice in Arizona. 

Commission members also missed an opportunity to hear from formerly incarcerated people and researchers in other states, said Hill, the ACLU policy director. Instead, a commission made up almost entirely of prosecutors and law enforcement officials heard presentations from the perspective of law enforcement, he said. 

The 1980s law that created the 19-member commission spells out specific roles each governor-appointed member must have – for instance, a police chief from a large county or former judge. It doesn’t include any defense attorneys, and legislative efforts to change the law to include public defenders repeatedly stalled. 

“They met on their own, in their own echo chamber, and painted a slanted picture of Arizona’s mass incarceration crisis,” Hill said. “The exact people who caused our prison population to explode are now trying to halt the bipartisan momentum for reform by presenting a skewed set of data and downplaying the severity of the crisis for Arizona families, communities and taxpayers.” 

Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist who works on criminal justice issues at the Capitol and sat through the meeting, said the commission appeared to show its hand by inviting Twist and not any of the groups that had their research called into question. 

“It’s frustrating that we had a conversation about data today where we didn’t actually talk about data,” Rodriguez said. “We just heard what we always hear from the same group or people, prosecutors and law enforcement.”

Liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning groups including the ACLU, FWD.us and Right on Crime all agree on what the data shows about the state’s criminal justice system, Rodriguez said. The only disagreement comes from the prosecutors on the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission.

It’s unlikely that the commission’s “common data framework” will come to any conclusions other than that prosecutors were right all along and there isn’t enough data for anything beyond that report, said Kyle Barry, senior legal counsel at the national Justice Collaborative. 

“If anything other than those two things come out of this ACJC hearing, I would be shocked,” he said.  

Compiling all the available data into a single source is a laudable goal, said Kurt Altman, Arizona and New Mexico director for the conservative reform group Right on Crime. But he said focusing too much on compiling data could distract from getting actual reform work done.  

“We don’t need any more data to say the No. 1 problem that leads to recidivism is the lack of jobs, No. 2 is the lack of housing,” Altman said. “Let’s look into that. We can do something about that.”