The “tough-on-crime” trend is so 20th century.
That antiquated verbiage, and the politically charged rhetoric behind it, is fading fast even in red state strongholds like Arizona. In its wake, a new movement has formed under a far more millennial catchphrase: smart on crime.
Caroline Isaacs, Arizona program director for American Friends Service Committee, said everywhere else in the country, “criminal justice reform” is old news.
In its place is a movement to be “smart” in tackling criminal justice.
Arizona may be lagging behind other states, including Republican strongholds like Georgia and Texas, in this arena, but the effort has steadily drawn support from across the political spectrum.
Last summer, the Arizona Supreme Court’s Task Force on Fair Justice for All offered 65 recommendations aimed at improving the criminal justice system, which led to the introduction of bills seeking to halt unfair penalties on the poor.
Those efforts failed when Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth refused to hear the legislation in the House Judiciary Committee, a move he declined to explain at the time.
But the movement is undeterred.
‘It is humanity. It is individual justice’
Dave Byers, the task force’s co-chair and director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said by “hook or crook,” the courts are finding ways to implement changes.
“High-risk people who have access to money get out,” he said. “A poor guy, (a) working folk who’s got a ticket and can’t pay the bail because his license is suspended or whatever the issue is, sits in jail. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Repeatedly penalizing a single mother caring for a child with cancer, for example, may do no good, he continued.
“It is humanity. It is individual justice,” Byers said. “We don’t treat everyone the exact same way.”
Gov. Doug Ducey said it’s the right thing to do. He noted the recidivism rate is approaching 50 percent, and if offenders do not find opportunities after serving their time, that problem will persist.
“It costs a lot to house and feed someone and shelter them,” he told the Arizona Capitol Times. “If you can get them on the other side of the equation, where they’re a productive, taxpaying citizen who has a career, a job or an opportunity, well, that’s just a better direction to go in.”
Lauren Krisai of the libertarian Reason Foundation said Arizonans now see that tough talk is “losing rhetoric,” and incarceration is not a catchall solution.
“It’s not like you’re either against crime or you want our communities to be crime-ridden,” she said. “That’s a false dichotomy. We can’t incarcerate our way out of this problem… That makes us less safe.”
‘States are at the front line’
Attorney Kurt Altman said the movement is being driven by the return – or lack thereof – from investing in the criminal justice system.
“We forget that 95 percent of the people that we send to prisons are going to come back into society,” said Altman, the state director of Right on Crime. “We’re not doing anything right now to help them reintegrate and stay in that society without going back.”
And the states, he added, are more in tune to the effects of that failure.
“The states are at the front line of this,” he said. “The states are looking at their communities, their workforce, their budgets and saying, ‘We need to do something.’”
In Altman’s view, Arizona has a difficult road ahead because of its “law and order” history, but he noted changes made this year.
Legislation signed by Ducey requires licensing authorities to grant regular or provisional licenses to convicted offenders who are otherwise qualified applicants.
That law may have changed the life of one of Altman’s former clients, a man who ran a barber operation while in prison but who was denied a license when he was released.
“He knew how to do two things, and when he couldn’t do the legitimate one, he turned back,” Altman said.
He predicted that getting people, especially low-risk offenders, back to work will be a priority in the years to come.
In those low-level cases, diversion programs may be the answer, said Amy Kalman, president of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
She said giving offenders the tools to find employment, maintain stable housing and take care of their children makes families more cohesive and helps get people more engaged in normal spending that boosts local economies.
And those changes get to the root of what Kalman characterized as the underlying causes of minor crimes: housing instability, lack of education and addiction.
Kalman said “common sense reforms” are still dismissed as being soft.
Yet she remains hopeful for a “meeting of the minds.” After all, even Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s opposition could not stop changes to civil asset forfeiture.
Civil asset forfeiture coalition ‘did the impossible’
Isaacs of American Friends Service Committee said the coalition behind civil asset forfeiture reform “did the impossible” by rolling over a “shot-caller” like Montgomery and heavy opposition from the law enforcement community.
The changes proposed by Farnsworth in HB2477 proved to Isaacs that more could be done sooner rather than later.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona was among the bill’s supporters.
“Regardless of whether or not you think that the changes to civil asset forfeiture was really criminal justice reform, what’s important is you saw a broad coalition of organizations come together in order to reform Arizona’s laws and were able to do so over the very public objections of law enforcement,” said ACLU Policy Director Will Gaona. “Moving forward, it means this is possible in Arizona.”
The ACLU found an unusual ally in the Goldwater Institute.
Director of National Litigation Jon Riches said the state’s forfeiture laws, which have drawn the ire of conservative groups, have been “an affront to due process.”
The matter involves clear due process issues, Riches said.
“Look, if the government is going to try to take somebody’s property, the presumption should be that the government has to prove some sort of doing,” Riches said.
He said more should be done on the civil forfeiture front.
He pointed to the “perverse incentive” created when the proceeds of forfeitures go back to the seizing agency, and the fact that a criminal conviction is not needed to seize property.
For those changes and others to be made, Isaacs said the movement will continue to rely on broad support.
“Let’s all hold hands and jump,” she said. “We don’t need a champion. We don’t need one person to stick their neck out. Let’s all just say, ‘This is what we want to do. How do we get it done?’”