Age of ‘tough-on-crime’ policies is fading in Arizona

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
Caroline Isaacs

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.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth
Rep. Eddie Farnsworth

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
Gov. Doug Ducey (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

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’

Kurt Altman
Kurt Altman

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.

Amy Kalman
Amy Kalman

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.

Will Gaona
Will Gaona

“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.

Jon Riches
Jon Riches

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?’”

Arizona resistant to change in ‘tough-on-crime’ sentencing laws

A lingering “tough-on-crime” mentality in Arizona is hampering efforts to reconstruct the state’s criminal justice system.

Several measures introduced this session address fines, fees and probation, but affording more discretion to courts during sentencing and eliminating mandatory minimums has eluded those pushing for a “smart on crime” approach, a buzzword used by a wide range of groups seeking change.

That approach, according to some lawmakers and advocates for change, has been resisted by conservative politicians and prosecutors who have been elected with the help of scare tactics for generations.

Rep. David Stringer (R-Prescott)
Rep. David Stringer (R-Prescott)

Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, said though many of his colleagues are interested in discussing changes to the criminal justice system, not all are open to it. After all, he said, Republicans have run on a “tough-on-crime” platform for years.

“There’s resistance to reform and I have to say running on cracking down on crime, tough on crime, these have been Republican issues for a long time. They’ve helped Republicans get elected,” he said. “But I’m distressed that a lot of my colleagues continue to run on this issue.

“Some of them don’t know how to talk any other language.”.

Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group focused on criminal justice reform, said GOP legislators haven’t gotten out in front of the issue because of a “lingering and false belief that this is a political liability.”

Stringer and Isaacs are frustrated with how slow the process has been in Arizona, especially given that more conservative states, like Louisiana, tackled the issue in just one session.

But not everyone believes greater changes are needed.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said Arizona is already ahead of the rest of the country.

On March 16, the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council said in a news release accompanying the 2017 “Prisoners in Arizona” report that the state has been a “front-runner in criminal justice reform” for 20 years.

The report says the state prison population has declined by 1.1 percent since June 2016, “a trend that is (in) sharp contrast to an annual uptick in prison population from July 2012 through April 2016.”

The researchers also determined that the number of first-time offenders incarcerated decreased by 3.3 percent from 2011 to 2017 because of intervention programs to treat drug and alcohol addiction or mental health issues, which Montgomery said prosecutors have championed for years.

Bill Montgomery
Bill Montgomery

Montgomery called other ideas being pushed by the smart-on-crime crowd “pet projects” that are “based on myths and rhetoric.”

“Most of the folks who call criminal justice reform ‘reform’ – all they’re really out to do is arbitrarily adjust sentencing statutes or adjust truth-in-sentencing with no data to support it,” he said.

But advocates for change say those adjustments will make a real impact, and they point to Montgomery and other county attorneys as one reason why the effort has stalled statewide.


Groups all along the political spectrum agree something must be done to improve Arizona’s criminal justice system. But they haven’t yet reached a consensus on what specifically should be done.

Progressive groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and American Friends Service Committee, and conservative groups, like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, are calling for changes to the state’s sentencing statutes.

The groups have also called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences, especially for drug offenses.

But Montgomery scoffed at their ideas of “so-called reform,” arguing that they’re trying to overlay other states’ solutions on Arizona.

He said the reality is other states either face different problems or are simply implementing measures Arizona embraced years ago, such as diverting first-time drug offenders to treatment instead of prison.

“And because we weren’t part of the so-called reform wave, we don’t get credit for what we did,”

Montgomery said.

He said the first step in the public policy conversation must be to define the problem and determine what resources are needed to solve it.

“For so many, and this is what has been a frustration of mine, they don’t understand the problem,” he said.

“We need to come to a common understanding of the criminal environment we actually have, the types of crimes we have to deal with, and then what makes for the most effective policy. … What do we want to define as success for the criminal justice system in Arizona?”

For Montgomery, success would mean reducing recidivism, a goal he shares with Gov. Doug Ducey.

Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said the governor approaches the issue from a public safety perspective. The governor’s priority, he said, has been to provide people who have already served their time with opportunities to get back on their feet by helping them get jobs, government benefits, and treatment.

Those efforts, Scarpinato said, will help reduce recidivism rates and the state’s prison population, while still “making sure we’re enforcing the rule of law and still being tough on crime.”

Montgomery also said he wants more punitive sanctions in place for drug traffickers to deter them.

Will Gaona
Will Gaona (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

And on that point, his views and those of change advocates, like the ACLU’s Will Gaona, could not be more different.

According to the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council’s updated Prisoners in Arizona report, 84 percent of state prisoners are repeat offenders.

Gaona said it “demonstrates the failure of our criminal justice system” – those offenders knew they could go back to prison, yet that didn’t stop them from committing new crimes.

“Obviously, this is not an effective intervention, and we’re just going to try it again for longer periods of time for something that has already been demonstrated not to work,” he said.


Lawmakers introduced more than a dozen bills this session seeking to improve the criminal justice system. Few of them, however, went anywhere in the legislative process.

For example, Stringer introduced HB2303 seeking to reduce the penalties for possession of substances such as marijuana, heroin and cocaine, from felonies to misdemeanors. It would have also expanded the list of mitigating factors considered at sentencing to include documented mental illness, addiction, trauma resulting from military service and victimization.

Several bills introduced in both chambers, like HB2621 by Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Peoria, or SB1094 from Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, sought to address the expungement or sealing of criminal records.

None received a committee hearing.

Other bills were more successful.

Right on Crime, a campaign affiliated with a conservative Texas think tank, introduced a package of five bills this session that among other things, seeks to give the courts greater discretion to impose alternative sanctions, like community restitution, rather than hefty fines or prison time. It also seeks to establish a list of factors the court must consider when vacating and setting aside convictions, and makes administrative fixes to the intensive probation program.

Though a similar package of bills was introduced in 2017, the effort failed after Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, refused to hear the legislation in the House Judiciary Committee.

This session, nearly all of the bills, which were written and vetted by the Arizona Supreme Court’s Task Force on Fair Justice for All, were unanimously approved by the House and have faced relatively little opposition in the Senate.

Kurt Altman
Kurt Altman

As Right on Crime Director Kurt Altman, sees it, the bills have been successful so far because they seek to halt unfair penalties on the poor and reduce recidivism, ideas he thinks the GOP and Ducey can get behind.

Altman, a former county and federal prosecutor whose practice now includes criminal defense, said while the measures don’t make any major changes to the state’s sentencing statutes, they’re still effective.

Large-scale changes to the criminal justice system, such as changes to sentencing laws, will take more time and buy-in, he said.

“It’s part of the long-term process,” he said. “Are we there yet in Arizona? Probably not. But we’re trying to get there.”

That may be easier said than done.

Advocates have highlighted that there’s still a strong resistance from prosecutors, like Montgomery, who might stand to lose some power if more moderate measures successfully move through the Legislature.

Stringer said one of the problems he has faced is that despite proposing what he called “modest reforms,” he said there is still “tremendous resistance.”

“Some of the prosecutors are very, very adamantly against it because the current system gives prosecutors a tremendous amount of discretion,” he said.

He declined to name which prosecutors are opposed to making greater changes.

Gaona said like in other conservative states, elected prosecutors are working to derail efforts to improve the criminal justice system. In Arizona, he said, the biggest obstacle is Montgomery.

“Prosecutors take issue with criminal justice reform because it often reduces the power that they hold.” he said. “Looking at just his actions, it’s pretty clear that he’s an opponent to reform.”

He said Montgomery drastically amended one of the Fair Justice for All bills, HB2312, which establishes factors the court must consider when determining whether to set aside a conviction, despite having helped draft the original bill.

The original language of the bill, Gaona said, would have led to “real second chances,” and would have helped reduce recidivism by giving ex-offenders the opportunity to have their criminal records sealed.

Gaona said Montgomery’s office is also a proponent of a bill that would create new mandatory minimums for heroin and fentanyl possession – despite touting in public that Arizona “doesn’t incarcerate low-level drug offenders.”

But he pointed out that the state has already tried that with methamphetamine, and Gaona said the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council’s own report seems to suggest that has not been successful in preventing trafficking.

The report indicates that three of the top six offenses for which people are incarcerated are drug related.

At the same time, during a roundtable presentation of the report, Montgomery noted the amount of methamphetamine seized near the border has increased. Increasing amounts of heroin and fentanyl are also trafficked through Arizona.

And Montgomery says tougher sentencing laws are the answer.

Yet the data says otherwise, Gaona said. More people have been incarcerated for related offenses, according to the data, but the amount of drugs trafficked hasn’t been negatively impacted.

Gaona said that indicates to him that drugs continue to be a major driver of incarceration.

Montgomery rejected any suggestion that he and his fellow prosecutors have been standing in the way, calling that “nonsense.”

“I really believe that those who keep pushing that narrative do so because they can’t accept the fact that their ideas are bad,” he said.

If prosecutors had control over the process, he added, drastic changes to Arizona’s asset forfeiture laws never would have passed last session.

Farnsworth’s HB2477 increased the standard of evidence required for authorities to seize property and strengthened reporting requirements. It was nearly universally opposed by law enforcement.

Montgomery argued this is simply what the public policy process looks like – “like making sausage.”

“Prosecutors don’t have a vote at the Legislature,” he said. “We don’t sit on committees. We don’t sponsor bills. We don’t get to vote on the floor. They want to say that there’s a wall. There’s not a wall. It’s a gate. And it’s a gate that requires careful analysis and review because we can’t gamble on public safety.”

Blackman relaunches effort to release prisoners early

Walt Blackman

A 2020 legislative effort to expand early release opportunities for prisoners kicked off Monday morning with exhortations from advocates to think beyond incremental steps and warnings from the Arizona Department of Corrections that it doesn’t have the budget or staff to handle big changes.

Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, was stymied in his attempts to pass legislation this session that would allow prisoners to earn more time off for good behavior. While his HB 2270 didn’t rate a committee hearing, he’s now leading an interim committee working on new legislation to give prisoners the ability to earn time off their sentences by completing programs aimed to keep them from reoffending.

“When a person comes into the system and becomes an inmate, they are our responsibility then,” Blackman said. “We have to make sure we are giving folks tools to succeed.”

Other states give prisoners two ways to earn time off their sentences, said Lauren Krisai, a senior analyst with the national Justice Action Network. They can earn “good time” for behaving and avoiding disciplinary actions and “earned time” for participating in programs like GED classes or anger management that are designed to help returning prisoners integrate into society.

“If you follow the rules, than you can get good time credits,” Krisai said. “For earned time, you have to do something proactively”

Arizona offers only good time, at a rate of one day for every six days served. Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill earlier this year that will allow some nonviolent drug offenders who have completed drug treatment programs to qualify for three days off for every seven served.

However, the Arizona Department of Corrections does not employ enough counselors or officers to provide the drug treatment programs required to earn additional time off sentences required by that new law, said Karen Hellman, the department’s division director for inmate programs and reentry.

She said it was “safe to say” the rehabilitation programs, which make up somewhere between 2% and 12% of the department’s $1.2 billion budget, would need more staff to implement any large-scale efforts to expand earned release programs.

“We do not have the capacity to treat everyone who needs it,” Hellman said.

Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said he wanted to see more information about the costs of implementing changes to the state’s earned-release programs. Blackman said he plans to ask Krisai and her colleagues at the Justice Action Network to model costs for Arizona.

While implementing new programs would likely have an initial cost, Krisai said states realize savings over time. She said Republican-led states including Oklahoma, Tennessee and Kansas have changed their sentencing laws to reduce time spent in prison without negative consequences.

“When you allow inmates to earn additional credits, that means they’re getting out earlier,” Krisai said. “That’s fewer dollars that are being spent on the prison or the prison bed that person was taking up.”

And providing treatment for inmates with early release as an incentive boosts morale in prisons, she said. Instead of waiting around to be released, they’re actively working on rehabilitation.

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said he sees a need for incentives in the prison system. The corrections system is supposed to serve as a consequence to people who commit crimes, he said, but it also needs to work on rehabilitating inmates.

“We’re pretty good at the punishment part of it, perhaps a little too good,” Toma said. “We’re pretty good at the stick thing. Not too much about the carrots.”

Legislative efforts to change criminal justice laws repeatedly stall at the Capitol, where criminal justice advocates say prosecutors carry an outsize influence on lawmakers in the Republican majority. Blackman said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery declined an invitation to speak publicly to his committee Monday morning, but instead planned to meet privately with Blackman later in the day.

Montgomery is one of several finalists for a vacant Supreme Court seat, and Blackman said he’s spoken with several people interested in serving as county attorney should Montgomery be appointed to the Supreme Court who are interested in pursuing changes to sentencing laws.

“I do not need Mr. Montgomery’s permission to do what I plan to do,” he said.

Caroline Isaacs, Tucson program director of the American Friends Service Committee, implored lawmakers to choose the path forward that will help the most people and make it politically feasible, rather than taking incremental steps just to say they’ve gotten something done.

“We have done incremental,” Isaacs said. “We have continued to do incremental, but there’s no question it is incumbent on us to do the most bold and wide-reaching reform that we can.”

Controversial researcher hired to update prison population study

For years, Arizona’s top prosecutors have leaned on a study of the state’s prison population to draw conclusions about how sentencing laws work.

For just as long, advocates of criminal justice reform in Arizona have criticized the study as flawed and misleading in a way that benefits the arguments prosecutors make to policymakers at the Capitol: that sentencing laws are working as they should. Put another way: the majority of people behind bars are the bad guys – violent and repeat offenders – who deserve to be there.

The latest update to the Prisoners in Arizona report, produced by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, or APAAC, is scheduled to be finished this fall, and it promises to be more controversial than ever thanks to the man hired to update it, John Lott.

John Lott
John Lott

Lott is best known for his work in the field of gun laws, where his most talked about research concludes that areas that allow concealed carry of firearms are associated with lower crime rates.

Just as critics of the Prisoners in Arizona report have spent years rebutting the study’s findings, Lott’s critics are no less vocal. His research has been picked apart, and in many corners of the academic community, found to be lacking. His integrity has been questioned amid accusations that he manipulates data to draw conclusions that fit the narrative of his views on firearms, accusations that Lott has repeatedly denied.

His hiring by APAAC has left those already critical of the Prisoners in Arizona report even more wary that the council is engaging not in a fact-finding mission, but in a political exercise designed to protect their broad discretion as prosecutors.

Officials with APAAC either defended Lott’s research or argued that his political leanings and firearm-focused studies are irrelevant to the task at hand of analyzing data provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections. But for some, like Caroline Isaacs, whose work for the American Friends Service Committee in Arizona focuses on criminal justice issues, the politics are hard to ignore.

“This is a really unfortunate choice that honestly I think undermines the credibility of APAAC,” Isaacs said. “And if I were a member of APAAC, I would have serious reservations about putting my name behind any research produced by this guy.”

The Academic

Lott came to prominence for his work as a pro-gun academic, and is frequently called upon to make media appearances or write editorials expounding the virtues of guns as a crime deterrent. His résumé boasts work as a contributor, then columnist for Fox News.com, and most recently, the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, an organization run out of his Pennsylvania home covering a wide range of research topics, most related to firearms.

Lott had his ups and downs through the years, most notably after a wave of research contradicting his work around “More Guns Less Crime,” his seminal book first published in 1998. “More Guns Less Crime” stemmed from a study Lott co-wrote as a research fellow at the University of Chicago. Published in 1997, that study drew a link between laws permitting concealed carry and lower crime rates.

His conclusions were much like the adage often heard at the Arizona Capitol that guns in the hands of well-to-do citizens are a quality means to deter evil-doers.

As gun advocates latched on to Lott’s research, the larger academic community began to scrutinize it, and what they found was, in the words of one criminologist, “garbage.”  Studies have since contradicted Lott’s work, criticizing everything from the data he chose to analyze and the statistical models he used to crunch the numbers.

Lott later came under fire when, asked to release the data from a survey he conducted on his own that resulted in claims about defensive gun use, he said the data was lost in a computer crash. He was further scrutinized when he admitted to using a pseudonym to defend his work in online forums.

Lott has responded time and time again to attacks on his research, even from some conservative voices like Michelle Malkin, a political commentator. His rebuttals have satisfied some, but not all. Among Lott’s supporters is Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who recommended that APAAC hire Lott.

David Clark and Ted Nugent
David Clarke, left, and Ted Nugent

Lott founded the Crime Prevention Research Center in 2013, which boasts an academic board that he explains reviews his research. His board of directors is filled with names reminiscent from the 2016 campaign trail as supporters of President Trump. There’s Ted Nugent, the far-right musician and gun advocate, and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who has come under fire after a mentally ill man was found dead in solitary confinement in one of his jails.

When asked about his qualifications to conduct the Prisoners in Arizona report, Lott noted his past academic credentials – he has held teaching or research positions at Stanford University, the Wharton Business School, Yale Law School, Rice University, and the University of Chicago. In an email to the Arizona Capitol Times, Lott wrote that his experience as the chief economist for the U.S. Sentencing Commission from 1988 to 1989 also qualifies him to study prison populations.

As for his critics, Lott said they “will make it appear that it is my research on the one side against lots of others.” He referred to a list of writings with positive takes on right-to-carry laws – compiled on his own website – as evidence that most criminologists and law professors support the conclusions of his research.

Besides, those criticisms have nothing to do with the task at hand of updating the Prisoners of Arizona report, a job that requires no real statistical work, he wrote.

Lott added that past criticisms of the report are irrelevant to him.

“There is no policy or discretion on my part involved in what I am doing for Bill Montgomery. All I am doing is taking the last report that was done and updating it. What they looked at before will remain unchanged. I’m not adding any additional topics nor taking anything away,” Lott wrote.

The Report

The work of updating the Prisoners of Arizona report should be simple enough, Lott said. The job involves organizing past data, replicating the most recent report, and adding some years of data to it.

“The job doesn’t involve reinterpreting data or testing hypotheses,” Lott wrote in an email.

That’s been the case since 2010, the first year APAAC published the report. It was initially produced by Daryl Fischer, a former analyst for the Department of Corrections who updated the report in 2011 and 2014.

Each time, Fischer has followed the same formula he first used in 2009 and 2010 – gather data from the Department of Corrections.

Caroline Isaacs, director of American Friends Service Committee, makes a point during a press conference Aug. 3, 2017, to introduce a report the group published on the high number of drug offenders in prison. (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)
Caroline Isaacs, director of American Friends Service Committee, makes a point during a press conference Aug. 3, 2017, to introduce a report the group published on the high number of drug offenders in prison. (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

That’s problematic, according to Isaacs, whose group focuses on criminal justice issues, because DOC data is but a snapshot of the sentencing process. As Isaacs wrote in her 2011 rebuttal of the Prisoners in Arizona report, DOC “uses broad categories to classify prisoners based on a set of criteria that may make sense for correctional administrators, but does not provide all the pertinent information about the individual case.”

“This is not based on any kind of sentencing information,” Isaacs said in an interview. “It’s based on what the Department of Corrections can tell them about who they have in custody. And that is a very small piece of the picture when it comes to sentencing.”

That’s a part of what makes the conclusion of the Prisoners in Arizona so troublesome for its critics: That 95 percent of prisoners in the state are some combination of repeat and violent offenders, two very different categories of people, Isaacs said.

As a contrast, the American Friends Service Committee recently completed a study of drug sentences in Maricopa, Pima and Yavapai counties in 2015. It wasn’t easy to conduct, Isaacs said, as she and a team of researchers manually pulled the cases from courthouse records to study each one, from the arrest to the sentencing.

It might be a slog, but it can be done, Isaacs said, adding that she “cannot imagine why our elected officials and court personnel and systems actors wouldn’t want to get that data.”

Amy Kalman
Amy Kalman

“In the absence of doing that, we simply have no idea how our sentencing laws work, which is very convenient if you’re in opposition to reform of said sentencing laws,” she said.

Amy Kalman, president of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said the Prisoners in Arizona report isn’t useless, but should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s problematic when policymakers take the APAAC’s study as gospel without looking at the data and methodology with a critical eye, she said.

“I’m not sure that everybody who looks or generates or relies upon the report necessarily understands all of the concerns that have been raised with the report, not just by AACJ, but by other people,” Kalman said. “So to look at it and say, ‘Hey I’ve got numbers that confirm I’m doing the right thing’ can be very reassuring.”

‘Work Really Hard’

Elizabeth Ortiz, the executive director of APAAC, said there’s a “whole book full of questions” about how and why people get sentenced in Arizona, and the APAAC report doesn’t claim to answer them all. But the original analysis is a valuable resource, she said, and it’s been updated in a similar fashion each time to maintain an apples-to-apples comparison of the data.

The question the Prisoners in Arizona report seeks to answer is, who is in prison, and what are their specific criminal records?

Basically, she said, “what did they get sentenced to prison for?”

Montgomery, whose office is providing $34,500 in RICO funding to pay for Lott’s services, said the data studied in Prisoners in Arizona is sufficient. In the past, Fischer’s studies have used orders of commitment, Montgomery said – sentencing orders made by Superior Court judges.

“There’s no subjective Department of Corrections evaluation of that. If someone was sentenced for trafficking of stolen property in the second degree, that’s what is captured in it. And this is where the Arizona Friends Society loses their credibility,” Montgomery said.

“Either we have 95 percent of people in prison for multiple felony convictions and/or violent convictions, or we don’t,” he added, citing the key statistic found in the 2014 Prisoners in Arizona report.

If APAAC really wants to answer questions about sentencing, studying DOC data is never going to provide an answer, but conveniently, the Prisoners in Arizona report does provide a data-driven study that fits a narrative prosecutors push at the Capitol, Isaacs said.

“The message and the takeaway from this report and also things I have heard various county attorneys say repeatedly is, the line is, ‘You have to work really hard to go to prison in Arizona,’” Isaacs said.

The American Friends Service Committee’s recent study of drug sentencing in three Arizona counties shows something else entirely, Isaacs said: “It’s much easier to do prison time for drug-related offenses in Arizona than I think their messaging acknowledges.”

In Maricopa County, drug-related charges are the single most charged offense, by far, Isaacs found. Most charges are for possession. That is in a county that Isaacs praised for making diversion programs available to drug offenders, though she noted other counties don’t have programming as good as Maricopa County provides.

“Far from being scary drug dealers pushing drugs with kids, or cartels, really what we see from the data is small-time sales, because people are addicted and they’re selling small amounts to support their habit, or just because people are addicted, they have repeat offenses,” she said.

That paints a picture not of a prison system filled with violent criminals, but repeat offenders who are in prison because of an addiction – and their time in prison has clearly done nothing to resolve the addiction, since they wind up back in the system upon their release, she said.

Montgomery, however, doesn’t think much of studies like Isaacs’. He was quick to slam the recent drug sentencing report, which he called poorly researched, and linked the American Friends Service Committee to liberal financier George Soros, someone Montgomery said aids in efforts to “manipulate the truth” – the same accusations that have been made against Lott.

As for the limitations of DOC data, Montgomery said he doesn’t have the kind of access to all the data he’d need to comprehensively track sentencing, and defended the initial purpose of the Prisoners in Arizona report.

“Quite honestly, the question that was asked back in 2009 … was, if we say we want to send the most repetitive and the most violent offenders to prison, then that’s who should be in prison. So let’s go take a look at who’s there and for what offenses,” Montgomery said.

A Polarizing Figure

As for Lott, Isaacs called his hiring a “real departure” for APAAC. While she had reservations about Fischer, who Ortiz, APAAC’s executive director, said is ill and unable to update the report as he has done in the past, at least Fischer had years of experience in Arizona as a statistician – albeit for the Department of Corrections, Isaacs noted.

“Mr. Lott, on the other hand, is clearly a visibly political and polarizing figure who does not seem to be concerned particularly with objectivity on certain subjects, most notably guns,” she said.

Kalman, president of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, declined to comment on the veracity of the latest Prisoners in Arizona report until it’s complete, but the choice of Lott doesn’t inspire confidence, she said.

“They probably could have made another choice, and I hope it’s not an indication that they’re trying to make this a political thing instead of a search for what is actually gonna help,” Kalman said.

Montgomery dismissed those concerns, describing them as the same tired criticisms of organizations that have doubted APAAC’s study for years.

“His data in there has been reviewed. He makes his data available to everybody. I think it’s been more criticized and reviewed because he came to conclusions that don’t fit the liberal narrative,” Montgomery said.

Ortiz said Lott has the analytical skills as an economist to answer specific research questions APAAC hopes to answer using the Department of Corrections data. As for his political leanings and other research, that’s irrelevant to the task at hand, she said.

“I recognize that Dr. Lott has done studies that some people find controversial,” Ortiz said. “To me, I’m just looking at him as a professional who understands statistics, who understands data and understands how to pull subsets out of that data to answer specific questions. So to me, I don’t look at his politics or look at any of his other studies because that’s not what I’m hiring him for.”

High Stakes

The stakes are high for advocates of criminal justice reform, who have seen how prosecutors have used and continue to use the Prisoners in Arizona report to make the case against sentencing reform.

Bill Montgomery
Bill Montgomery

Montgomery said that’s not the case.

“I don’t cite those studies to say that, ‘Here’s exactly what truth in sentencing has done to prevent crimes.’ I’ve mentioned it. But I primarily cite that study to identify exactly who’s in prison and for what offenses, and that’s completely objective,” he said.

The very website the report is made available through online betrays APAAC’s intentions, as does Montgomery’s past statements. The prosecutors’ council runs a website called Arizona Sentencing Report, an alternate name for the Prisoners in Arizona report. The study is prominently featured on the website, as are “myths about Arizona’s sentencing laws,” among them critiques of Arizona’s criminal justice system.

As far back as 2011, Montgomery came to the defense of Arizona’s sentencing laws armed with his own APAAC-financed report. At the time, a study from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University compiled efforts by other states to reduce prison costs, and sentencing reforms was among the recommendations.

Montgomery requested the school host a debate, at which he blasted the study for its “academic estimates” that examined “the so-called ‘social’ causes of crime.” He argued against the creation of a sentencing commission that would advise the Legislature, and to further his argument, cited the Prisoners in Arizona report, which at the time found that roughly 94 percent of the state’s prisoners were either violent or repeat offenders, or both.

As for the Arizona State University study, Montgomery called it “divorced from reality – another academic exercise.”

Cecil Ash, a former Republican legislator who now serves as a justice of the peace in Mesa, said the Prisoners in Arizona report was often cited in arguments against his own legislative efforts at sentencing reform.

“Truthfully, the legislators don’t really understand the sentencing law,” Ash said. “They rely on the prosecutors to explain it to them.”

That’s what Isaacs, Kalman and even the state’s court system – which this past session pushed for a package of reforms agreed upon by the Arizona Supreme Court’s Task Force on Fair Justice for All – face when trying to get reforms through at the Capitol.

The reform community managed a victory this past session, as lawmakers approved a series of changes to civil asset forfeiture laws over objections from state prosecutors. But other efforts faltered, like the court’s package of reforms. Those bills were halted by Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, a Gilbert Republican and ally of Montgomery.

“I think the APAAC report is great!” Isaacs said. “I think more data is better. We need more data, not less.”

But policymakers are missing out when they rely so heavily on APAAC’s data and when prosecutors dismiss other research, she said.

“My only quarrel is saying that the APAAC report is the end all be all of everything you need to know about sentencing in Arizona. It’s not. Neither is our report,” Isaacs said. “Ours is an attempt to say, ‘Look at all the stuff we’re not calculating, that we’re not following, that absolutely is how sentencing happens, how laws get applied.’”

Corrections asks for more money to help prisoners re-enter society

The Arizona Department of Corrections wants 102 new positions and more than $13 million to fuel re-entry and recidivism reduction programs, but prisoner rights advocates aren’t convinced the request signals a turn in the department’s philosophy.

According to DOC, about half of the current prison population in Arizona has served a prior term behind bars. And in fiscal year 2014, 39 percent of people released from prison returned within just three years.

By Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times

DOC aims to reduce recidivism by 25 percent in the next decade, and according to a budget request sent to Gov. Doug Ducey’s office, that goal will be “delayed indefinitely” without additional resources.

The specifics of the department’s budget request for fiscal year 2019 include funding to expand substance abuse treatment services in prison, to create a special needs supervision unit and to provide “motivational interviewing” training to corrections officers.

In an email to the Arizona Capitol Times, DOC spokesman Andrew Wilder said the request is the department’s highest priority sent to the Governor’s Office for consideration. The approach is largely new, though it repeats some past requests, namely for additional treatment counselors.

By Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times

According to the department, DOC is currently able to serve only about 14 percent of those who need substance abuse treatment.

If the department’s needs are not met, Wilder said alternative options would be explored, but that could mean ineffectively working with what the department already has.

For example, Wilder said existing resources were already shifted to create several positions to focus on special needs and high-risk populations, like those suffering from severe mental illness. But as those populations in DOC’s custody grow, the department needs more people to appropriately manage their cases.

By Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times

Ultimately, Wilder said the request is consistent with a growing focus on recidivism reduction not just within the department but also from the governor.

Yet Donna Hamm, director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, called the sudden shift “confounding” and chalked it up to DOC Director Charles Ryan reluctantly following Ducey’s orders.

“They’re empire builders. They don’t give up money. They ask for more, and that’s exactly what they’re doing here,” she said. “I think it’s designed to look positive on paper, but in the actual real-world application, it’s simply going to add to their staff.”

Since early 2016, Ducey has made recidivism reduction a priority.

In 2017 alone, Ducey called on community leaders to assist those re-entering society in his State of the State address. He signed a bill to expand felony pretrial intervention programs to all counties. And his administration is considering a “ban the box” policy that would delay inquiries about prospective public sector employees’ criminal histories. The list goes on.

By Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times

Hamm said Ducey essentially ordered Ryan to get on board.

The director may not be fond of the mandate, she said, but he’s using it to his advantage.

“A lot of grant money is out there,” she said. “If there was a new theory that said inmates would benefit from learning how to fix sushi, they would apply for grants to do just that. They’re chasing the money. If that money goes away, those programs go away.”

Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee was equally skeptical.

“What you’re seeing is the influence of the governor’s leadership,” she said, adding Ducey may have to bring in a new leader to get the job done. “We have a director who is from the old school. This is someone who came up under Sam Lewis and is clearly attempting to adjust to the governor’s new direction, but that’s just not the world he comes from.”

And the department seems to have acknowledged that in part.

DOC sought $1.3 million for each of the next three fiscal years to provide two-day “motivational interviewing” training to about 5,500 officers. The intention is to encourage staff at all levels to engage with prisoners and help them make positive changes.

By Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times

But that bit was followed by this apt observation: “This is a significant shift for the organization that will likely take years to achieve.

“A shift? This is a seismic earthquake that would have to take place,” Hamm said.

And nothing that can be taught in just 16 hours can accomplish that.

“They have hardened us-versus-them attitudes,” she said. “They have gangs that are prolific who control many of the units. The inmates are running the asylum, and that is not something that can be changed in a two-day workshop. I’m sorry.”

In her email, Hamm noted interactions between corrections officers and prisoners are “often on a very base level with a lot of vile language going back and forth.”

While not all officers “reduce themselves to conduct that in all other settings would be sanctioned as unprofessional and unacceptable,” Hamm said the training proposed by DOC would ask officers to “turn the other cheek when confronted with highly insensitive verbal blasts.”

By Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times

“Many staff simply don’t view the DOC as responsible for rehabilitation of criminal offenders.  They view it as a department of punishment,” she wrote. “Communicating this new way of thinking to almost 9,000 employees whose turnover rate is in the high teen figures will be a monumental task that will simply fall away at the next change of governor or director.  And what a boondoggle for them in the meantime: $1.3 million!”

And Isaacs worries that DOC’s request was an attempt to put a Band Aid on a bigger problem, even if the department “has nowhere to go but up.”

“You can do all of the preparation for re-entry you want,” she said. “If housing providers won’t rent to you and employers won’t hire you, we’re setting you up to fail.”

By Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times

Democrats oppose locating recidivism center in south Phoenix

Maricopa County Durango Jail in South Phoenix is a possible site for a re-entry center for recently released prisoners and an employment center for incarcerated prisoners. (Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)
Maricopa County Durango Jail in South Phoenix is a possible site for a re-entry center for recently released prisoners and an employment center for incarcerated prisoners. (Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)

Democratic lawmakers from south Phoenix are siding with their voters in a fight against two proposed programs aimed at helping prisoners re-enter society, a long held constituency of theirs that doesn’t vote.

The lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios and Rep. Reginald Bolding, who represent Phoenix’s Legislative District 27, and Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo, are outraged that Gov. Doug Ducey is proposing to open a re-entry center at Maricopa County’s Durango Jail. It would house those who have completed their state prison sentences but have violated their conditions of release, and there would also be an employment center for current state prisoners.

Though they support programs that provide current and former prisoners with job training and substance abuse treatment, they said they are tired of south Phoenix being a “dumping ground” for these types of programs.

The Arizona Department of Corrections opened a similar facility, the Maricopa Reentry Center, in north Phoenix in July 2016, despite protest from residents of the predominately white, middle class neighborhood. The new plan calls for the relocation of that center to south Phoenix, which Gallardo said was “just another example of environmental injustice in this community.”

“There’s a dirty little secret behind the relocation, and it’s not about helping the poor, it’s not about recidivism,” Gallardo said. “It’s about relocating from a very vocal white, upper-middle-class neighborhood to a minority, low-income neighborhood. That’s what it’s about. It’s about ‘Let’s move into a location where there will be less pushback and let’s try to do it real quickly before anyone knows.’”

The elected officials, along with business and community members of the south Phoenix neighborhood surrounding the Durango complex, said they worry the two programs could negatively impact an area that already has four county jails, a state prison nearby and a large homeless population. They also argued that the neighborhood has a proven track record of supporting such programs and that it was time other communities in the county and state stepped up to help fight recidivism.

Speaking to the Arizona Capitol Times, Rios and Bolding said despite being in favor of such programs, it wasn’t difficult for them to choose representing the needs of their voters versus those of the prisoner population in their Legislative district. Their voters’ concerns, they both said, outweighed the prisoners’ needs.

House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios
House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios (D-Phoenix) (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

“I think what we’re saying is south Phoenix, and specifically that location, we have taken more than our per capita share of jails and homeless shelters,” Rios said. “When is the rest of the state going to step up and provide the same amount of services?”

Bolding said many recently released prisoners don’t have access to transportation or housing and become a burden on the community. That, coupled with a large homeless population that will soon grow with the expansion of Phoenix Rescue Mission’s men’s shelter, is “sentencing the people who are in the community to an environment that people don’t want to live in.”

“The main thing I’m hearing from my constituents is that our students, parents and business owners don’t feel safe,” Bolding said.

Donna Hamm, director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, said if run properly, re-entry centers can benefit the community by stimulating the economy, especially in an area that has struggled economically.

She said for a Democratic Party that has historically run on a platform of supporting disadvantaged communities, the lawmakers’ arguments “pretty much fall on hollow ground.”

“It seems a bit disingenuous to object to a re-entry center, which is specifically geared toward people who have successfully completed their prison sentence and are now attempting to become productive members of society, when they have been for so many years perfectly accepting of jails and homeless shelters in their neighborhood,” Hamm said.

She said the elected officials opposing the re-entry program can’t have it both ways – they can’t support such programs but argue they don’t want them in their neighborhood.

“You give a little to get a little,” she said.

Scare tactics

The Arizona Department of Corrections currently operates two employment centers at the Lewis and Perryville prisons in Buckeye and Goodyear, respectively, and the Maricopa Reentry Center in north Phoenix.

The proposed employment center at the Durango complex, which provides job training and connects prisoners with employers, would house 335 low-to-medium custody prisoners that have a medium-to-high risk of re-offending, and have 60 days of their prison sentence left to serve, said Tim Roemer, Ducey’s policy adviser on public safety.

A proposed 265-bed re-entry center would provide services, such as temporary housing and intensive substance abuse treatment, to former prisoners who are on community supervision and are at risk of violating or have violated their conditions of release, he said.

Roemer added that the plan calls for the closure of the two existing employment centers and the relocation of the north Phoenix re-entry center to the Durango complex.

The jail complex, he said, will provide the state with a central location close to several employers and ample space to serve a larger population.

Roemer added that staff is unsure of where on the Durango complex the proposed employment and re-entry centers would be housed, or whether the centers would be housed in an existing building at the facility or if staff would have to budget for new construction. Possible locations include the former Tent City site or the Durango Jail, which is being replaced by a new facility.

Caroline Isaacs, director of American Friends Service Committee, makes a point during a press conference Aug. 3, 2017, to introduce a report the group published on the high number of drug offenders in prison. (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)
Caroline Isaacs, director of American Friends Service Committee, makes a point during a press conference Aug. 3, 2017, to introduce a report the group published on the high number of drug offenders in prison. (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group focused on criminal justice reform, said she wasn’t surprised south Phoenix residents don’t want the center. She said the best approach to ending recidivism is creating a statewide network of re-entry centers.

“It’s not surprising that folks in a majority Latino and lower-income community may feel put upon after the folks with more resources said, ‘No, no, no put it over there,’” she said, adding later: “We have a number of concerns with this whole process. All of the communities are entitled to a process that incorporates their feedback and concerns and it appears that hasn’t happened in either case.”

Still, Isaacs said the centers should be embraced instead of being seen as a “threat to the community.”

“The general framing of a re-entry center as some kind of blight on the community is extremely problematic and undermines what everyone says their goal is, which is to reduce recidivism,” Isaacs said. “We can’t keep engaging in this rhetoric that people who are in these programs are throw away people.”

Elected Democrats aren’t the only ones challenging the proposed location.

Attorney Stephen Montoya, who is representing a coalition of community members and parents in the Murphy Elementary School District in south Phoenix, said during a news conference on November 27 that mothers in the surrounding neighborhood were afraid to let their children walk to school and that parents in the district were fearful “the relocation of the re-entry center will increase the already challenged circumstances of that neighborhood.”

However, Renee Dominguez, who lives in the area and had children who attended the school district, said many of the concerns have been spurred by a flyer passed out by Phoenix activist Salvador Reza.

The flyer, which Dominguez provided to the Arizona Capitol Times, states in Spanish that the proposal would bring 3,500 drug and sex offenders to the community and that they would be allowed to enter and leave the facility without being monitored.

“It’s a scare tactic to scare the community, scare the moms who walk their children to school,” Dominguez said. “The misinformation and lies that are being told to the community and parents are leading to fear.”

Roemer said sex offenders will not be housed at the re-entry center. He also noted it would not function like a shelter and people in the program would only be allowed to leave with prior permission and would be monitored by DOC officials.

He was unable to provide a timeline for when the project will be completed or a cost estimate, adding that the project is still in the early stages and staff is working with the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to determine if the project is viable. In October, the supervisors approved a letter of intent to join with the state to study the possibility of using the Durango complex or “other suitable property” to house the programs.

He added that staff has been invited to speak to the community, and he noted that according to a new law Ducey signed earlier this year, DOC has to notify all property owners within a two-mile radius of a proposed correctional facility and hold public hearings.

Ducey mulls banning criminal background question on state job applications

(Stock photo/ILeezhun)
(Stock photo/ILeezhun)

The Ducey administration is considering a “ban the box” policy for state agencies that would delay the process of asking prospective employees for arrest or conviction information until later in the hiring process.

Such a policy would tie into Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s efforts at reducing recidivism and providing second chances for criminals. Several initiatives in the past two years have focused on this goal, from employment centers at prisons to food stamps for former drug felons to inmate fire crews.

The policy in discussion at Ducey’s office would only apply to public sector jobs, not private companies, as a way to “model the behavior we want the private sector to follow,” according to a slide in a report put together by the Ducey administration.

Many job applications in both the public and private sector ask prospective employees for any criminal histories. For instance, on a state job application, candidates are asked if they’ve been convicted of any crime – felonies, misdemeanors or serious driving offenses – even if it was set aside or expunged, along with details of the offenses, dates, jurisdictions and dispositions.

The “ban the box” movement, also referred to as fair chance hiring, started more than a decade ago by advocating for eliminating questions about criminal records until later in the hiring process as a way to help ex-offenders get jobs.

More than half of states have some form of policy that delays the process of asking about criminal records. Some states remove the box from governmental job applications, while others also require private employers to remove it.

Gov. Doug Ducey
Gov. Doug Ducey (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

The topic came up in meetings between the Governor’s Office and agencies that center around new initiatives the administration could undertake. So, while the topic is being discussed, it may not ultimately be greenlighted, said Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato.

The idea will be assessed by staff members, who will look at the impact of such policies, and what data and research show, Scarpinato said.

“Anything we do, we want to make sure it’s having a positive impact,” he said.

As part of its efforts to reduce recidivism, the Ducey administration is looking at various policies that other states have, ideas outside groups or stakeholders bring forward, or things staffers come across, Scarpinato said.

“We have a real commitment to reducing recidivism,” he said. “We’re looking at any number of policies around that.”

Several Arizona cities, including Phoenix, Tucson and Tempe, already have ban the box policies in place for public-sector jobs. The Obama administration banned the box for federal jobs in 2016.

Tucson has had an ordinance for more than two years. Lane Mandle, the city’s spokeswoman, said the policy has worked well for Tucson and hasn’t hindered employment in any way. The city of Tucson conducts background checks only once a candidate is a finalist for a position, she said.

“We’re pleased we’ve been able to ease some of the barriers to employment that convicted criminals face,” Mandle said.

Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada of Phoenix has introduced a bill to ban the box multiple times, to no avail. Last session, his proposal would have banned the box for state jobs. He said he’s glad to hear the Ducey administration is talking about the idea.

He said it’s not really a partisan move, but more of a common-sense one.

“This would help allow them to be judged on their merits instead of their past mistakes,” Quezada said.

Caroline Isaacs (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Caroline Isaacs (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group focused on criminal justice reform, said not being able to find work makes all problems worse – if people can’t find jobs, they likely can’t find housing or pay their bills, so they may be more likely to offend again and end up back in prison.

A ban the box policy would help end what she calls “legalized discrimination” against ex-offenders and allow Ducey the chance to set an example for the state and private employers, Isaacs said.

“All this stuff is old news practically everywhere except for Arizona. This stuff has been done and tested and proven. Not only is it not a risk, it’s going to be a net gain for the state,” she said.

Beth Avery, staff attorney at workers’ rights group the National Employment Law Project, said it’s hard to put a number on exactly how many people ban the box can help, but it’s significant. Nearly one-third of people have some type of record that could show up on an employment background check, she said.

Their records follow them around, attaching a stigma to employment and housing prospects, Avery said.

“They don’t get an opportunity to present their qualifications,” she said.

Fair chance hiring policies delay background checks, ideally until there’s a conditional job offer, Avery said. The ideal hiring policy looks at whether the conviction relates to the job, the nature of the offense, and how much time has passed, she said.

Ban the box policies aren’t strictly partisan either, Avery said. Some of the most recent adopters are Republican-led states like Utah, Kentucky, Indiana and Nevada, she noted.

She said the policy ties in with justice reform efforts Republicans have recently started promoting. The policies create less cost for government and increase public safety because they get people back to work, reducing recidivism, she said.

But some studies have shown possible unintended consequences for ban the box policies. A 2016 study by Amanda Agan of Rutgers University and Sonja Starr of University of Michigan Law School found ban the box policies negatively impacted black men because employers made assumptions on criminal records in the absence of a box.

The researchers sent 15,000 fake job applications to New Jersey and New York City employers both before and after ban the box policies were instituted. While white job seekers in general received more callbacks, the ban the box policy exacerbated the problem, the researchers said. Before ban the box policies, white candidates got
7 percent more callbacks, which increased to 45 percent after the policy was instituted.

Another study found the fair chance policies could lead employers to guess at criminal records, leading them to avoid interviewing low-skilled black and Hispanic applicants, researchers Jennifer Doleac of University of Virginia and Benjamin Hansen of University of Oregon concluded.

Avery said her group has a lot of questions about the studies’ methodology and conclusions, but said the ban the box policies aren’t the culprit – racial discrimination is.

“The real moral of the story here is that ban the box policies and fair chance policies are not intended to be a silver bullet,” she said. “They’re one part of a smart, comprehensive approach to this problem of mass incarceration and its effects on communities of color and people in general that’s been centuries in the making.”

Ducey wants to close Florence prison, town officials express concern

 This July 23, 2014, file photo shows a state prison in Florence. Gov. Doug Ducey announced in his January 13 State of the State Address his intention to close the historic prison. ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO
This July 23, 2014, file photo shows a state prison in Florence. Gov. Doug Ducey announced in his January 13 State of the State Address his intention to close the historic prison. ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Gov. Doug Ducey’s announcement in his State of the State Address that he would be shutting down the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence astounded criminal justice advocates and the town itself.

The move would save taxpayers $270 million over three years that would have been used for prison repairs, according to Ducey’s staff. Florence officials claimed they weren’t aware this was coming, but Ducey says otherwise.

“Much to our surprise, during this Address the Governor announced the closure of the Florence State Prison,” the city said in a press release.

Ducey denied that.

“I believe our staff worked with community leaders and we’ll have a transition plan that I think will make people very comfortable with the program,” Ducey said, adding that he told them sometime before the State of the State Address.

In his address, the governor also failed to mention which prison he would be shutting down. But what he did say, in a press release, is that inmates “will be relocated to a combination of third-party operators and county corrections facilities.”

Caroline Isaacs (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Caroline Isaacs (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Caroline Isaacs, the program director for American Friends Service Committee- Arizona, a social-action arm of the Quaker faith, is not on board with Ducey’s plan, mostly in the essence that sending more prisoners to county facilities is a “bad idea,” to say the least.

Isaacs compared Ducey’s ultimate plan to something similar that recently happened in California. She mentioned a federal lawsuit demanding California remove people from its prisons because of overcrowding, but the state instead went ahead with sending prisoners to its county facilities.

“California did choose to send people to county jails and it was a disaster because county jails are not equipped for this population. They are designed for very short-term stays of pre-trial detainees,” she said.  “You have people coming in who just were arrested in all kinds of states — detoxing from drugs, in acute mental health crisis, and everything else. So if Ducey is concerned about making the mission of Corrections into one of treatment and rehabilitation, you’re not going to get that in a county jail.”

Isaacs said the way she would go about this process is through sentencing reform to reduce the prison population.

“That’s what a vast majority of other states, including very conservative states have done quite successfully. And that’s the fiscally responsible thing to do. And the thing that’s actually best for public safety,” she said.

Isaacs said it’s concerning that they want to send prisoners to private facilities.

Ducey’s staff said that the move will be done thoughtfully, with sensitivity to the community that regards the Florence prison as a historic site and the main provider of jobs. But there’s still a problem that most other facilities are at or near capacity already.

The Florence prison houses 3,881 prisoners according to data from the Department of Corrections as recent as November 30. Eyman – which is down the street from Florence and where Ducey said most prisoners would be moved to – only has 193 open beds out of roughly 5,700, which means the plan would rely on counties even more.

Isaacs called that solution “the California way,” poking fun at the governor’s State of the State Twitter hashtag, #TheArizonaWay.

When California sent prisoners to county facilities, violence skyrocketed.

A trio of lawmakers who represent the city of Florence did not see a problem with shutting the doors of the prison that could result in what Florence estimates to be a $1.3 million direct hit to town services.

Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said the prison complex was “dated and unsafe.”

“Moving many of those inmates to Eyman or to a county facility, especially if they’re less violent offenders, let’s go ahead and see how that works,” he said. Shope also cares about job loss, which both he and the Ducey staff claim there won’t be, since workers in Florence will also be moved to other facilities, including Eyman.

His two seatmates, Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, and Sen. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, joined him in a collective press release on January 15, saying Ducey’s plan was “worthy of consideration.”

Looking ahead, Isaacs said when prisons do shut down, it matters how the buildings are going to be repurposed to “serve the community and not disappear people from it.”

Florence officials at a town council meeting on January 13 pointed to the successes of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary off the coast of San Francisco as a good example of what a non-operating prison could become.

“The Florence State Prison is a historic landmark and is woven into the very fabric of Florence,” the town stated.

Governor’s opioid epidemic playbook is one to follow


Earlier this week, Gov. Doug Ducey stood before a remarkable assembly of lawmakers from the majority and minority caucuses and stakeholders from corrections, faith communities, law enforcement, treatment agencies, and all points in between as he called a special session to address the opioid addiction crisis in Arizona.

This display of unity was impressive, as it was clearly intended to be. It sent the message that our state government was willing to put partisan bickering aside in service of a singular goal: addressing this crisis head on.

Caroline Isaacs
Caroline Isaacs

Leadership from both parties remarked on the collaborative and bipartisan nature of the process, taking potshots at the federal government’s recent shutdown. It’s a sad commentary that elected officials working together to govern is so noteworthy. But given the obvious success of the approach, we can all hope that it is one that once again becomes the rule rather than the exception.

Last June, the governor declared a state of emergency upon findings by the Arizona Department of Health Services that opioid overdose deaths rose by 74 percent between 2013 and 2017. Since then, the director of the Department of Health Services, health service providers, criminal justice advocates, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have spent long hours compiling research and formulating a workable response to this crisis.

The comprehensive and bipartisan nature of the process is evident in the scope of the bill’s provisions. Instead of the old knee-jerk, “get tough” posturing, the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act applies the best practices in the field, stressing the public health nature of the disease of addiction. The bill provides millions in additional funding for drug treatment services, expands access statewide to life-saving opioid antagonists such as Narcan and Naloxone, and establishes a Good Samaritan law, protecting people who call 911 during an overdose from prosecution for drug possession.

This is especially important, as our criminal justice system is spending over half a million dollars per day incarcerating people for addiction and minor drug possession. According to the Department of Public Safety, 89 percent of all drug arrests in 2015 were for possession, not sales or trafficking.

In Maricopa County, more than 45 percent of all criminal charges brought in 2015 were for drug possession. And, in our Department of Corrections, drug crimes make up the largest offense category, with more than one-fifth of the prison population being in for drugs as their highest charge. For women prisoners, that percentage is even higher: 32 percent of all women inmates are in for drug offenses.

While the Arizona Department of Corrections has identified 77 percent of inmates as needing drug treatment, only 2 percent of incarcerated people are receiving substance abuse treatment at any given time. And, most disappointingly, our recidivism rate in Arizona is around 50 percent. Clearly, we can do better to solve this problem.

Fortunately, we know that treatment works. By taking a preventative and intervention-based approach, the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act is a first step toward recognizing and addressing the disease of addiction in Arizona. From here, we hope that the state will move toward reforming the outdated and ineffective laws that criminalize and punish addiction rather than treat it as the health problem that it is. Only then can we bring a true end to this crisis, and perhaps circumvent the next one.

We hope that the governor’s playbook is one that is applied consistently as we move forward to address addiction: Engaging the experts, collecting real-time data, incorporating input from all stakeholders, and reaching across the aisle. With so many lives on the line, Arizonans deserve nothing less.

— Caroline Isaacs is the Arizona program director of the American Friends Service Committee.


The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

Key criminal justice bills dormant in Senate

Row of bars and American old prison cells

Although several measures aimed at cutting prison sentences and making other major changes to Arizona’s criminal justice system have passed the House this year, the big question is whether these bills will make it through the Senate or even get a hearing there.

Advocates for reducing Arizona’s incarceration rate – the fifth-highest in the nation in 2019 according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics – had some reason for hope when the 2021 legislative session started. Eddie Farnsworth, the former Senate Judiciary chairman who often opposed proposals to revamp sentencing, is out of the Legislature, having not run for re-election in 2020.

In the House this year, so-called reform bills ran not through the Judiciary Committee, but through a new Criminal Justice Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, a longtime advocate for criminal justice change.

Walt Blackman
Walt Blackman

Blackman’s committee advanced numerous bills, including ones to let more prisoners earn credits toward early release, create an independent ombudsman to oversee Arizona’s prison system, let judges assess shorter sentences than a statutory mandatory minimum in some cases and put new limits on civil asset forfeiture.

Most of these measures passed the House easily. A few, including HB2162, which would let some people convicted of low-level felonies have their convictions classified as misdemeanors, and HB2318, which would make some changes to “repetitive offender” sentencing, have made it through Senate Judiciary and appear to be on track to become law. However, three or four weeks after most of these measures have been transmitted to the Senate, some major criminal justice bills that passed the House haven’t been scheduled for a Senate hearing, leading activists to worry these efforts could stall yet again.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Darrell Hill, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. “I think the House did a great job of passing a wide array of criminal justice reform bills, and thus far no one in the Senate has indicated that they’re willing to join with this bipartisan consensus and pass criminal justice reform, so that’s really disappointing to us.” 

Hill said his organization would like to see Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, or Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to make sure the bills get an up or down vote in committee. 

The ACLU has been encouraging its supporters to reach out to Petersen and urge him to schedule a hearing on the bills. So has the American Friends Service Committee of Arizona, a Quaker organization that seeks to revamp the criminal justice system.

Petersen didn’t return calls and emails by press time. Blackman said he has been working with Petersen and is still hopeful the yet-to be scheduled bills will get heard.

“We’ve been talking and trying to work out some kinks in the bills and concerns he has and some of the members have,” Blackman said.

Blackman said he is “hoping we will come to an agreeable resolution to come across the finish line,” and added that he would particularly like to see HB2167 passed, which would create an independent ombudsman to monitor the state’s prison system. Blackman put out a statement in early March pointing to several recent scandalous issues involving the state’s prison system as evidence of the need for greater oversight. They included a sexual assault lawsuit, the state being fined $1.1 million in February for not complying with court orders to improve inmate health care and the state’s inmate management software not calculating some prisoners’ release dates correctly, potentially resulting in inmates being imprisoned longer than they should be.

“I believe that is the cornerstone of reform and if we can get that, we’ll be fine,” Blackman said March 17.

John Kavanagh
John Kavanagh

Opponents of HB2167 include the Arizona Police Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who voted against the bill, said during a House Appropriations Committee meeting in February that he views it as creating a public office whose job is to advocate for political change on behalf of prison inmates, “which I do not believe is the role of government-funded employees.”

Kavanagh said the ombudsman would save lawyers who want to sue the state over prison conditions the trouble of researching things themselves, and predicted Gov. Doug Ducey will veto the bill if it reaches his desk. 

“This is publicly paid advocacy against our corrections department,” Kavanagh said. 

Caroline Isaacs, American Friends Service Committee of Arizona’s program director, said she has been working with numerous organizations, including some major conservative groups, to advance criminal justice change this year. She said she views HB2167 as particularly necessary given the recent scandals at the department.

“It’s hard to fathom why we would not be having a conversation over prison oversight right now,” Isaacs said.

Isaacs also said that HB2673, which would let judges sentence an offender to less than a required mandatory minimum if the judge determines adhering to the minimum would be unjust and the public won’t be endangered. She said the bill shouldn’t be controversial, noting that the idea has many conservative backers.

“That’s an ALEC bill,” she said, referring to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives who draft and push legislation. “That’s a Rand Paul bill.”

Rep. Joel John, R-Buckeye, who sponsored HB2673, said he was inspired to do so after he got to know a man who worked on his farm and spent several years in prison for petty crimes he committed after he became addicted to painkillers, which were originally prescribed for a work-related injury.

“There were people who spent less time in prison than he did for more serious offenses, and that didn’t seem right to me,” John said. 

Opponents include Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk and Steve Twist, a longtime victims’ rights advocate who was assistant state attorney general during much of the period decades ago when lawmakers were adopting today’s tough sentencing laws. Both wrote to committee members saying mandatory sentences prevent unjust disparities in sentencing, according to a Capitol Media Services story about the hearing.

“Arizona adopted sentencing ranges to promote uniformity,” Polk wrote. “This bill takes us back to the days when who you are, where you live, and who your sentencing judge is will determine your sentence.”

Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin declined to comment on any of the bills, saying the governor has a longstanding policy of not weighing in on pending legislation. In the past, Ducey has been supportive of initiatives aimed at reducing recidivism, but has been skeptical of other criminal justice change efforts. He vetoed a 2019 bill to limit the use of Arizona’s “repeat offender” law to sentence people who don’t have prior criminal convictions. In this year’s State of the State Address, Ducey said he hoped to work with lawmakers on criminal justice change but didn’t offer any specifics.

“If there are other things that we can do that provide opportunities for people that better deal with mental health issues or addiction issues, I’m open-minded to that,” Ducey told the Arizona Mirror in January. “But … among the top priorities for me is public safety. And I’m not going to do anything that would lessen the amount of public safety and attention to law and order in the state or Arizona.”

Some criminal justice reform measures do seem to be moving through both chambers. Senate Judiciary was scheduled to hold hearings on March 18 on two of the House Criminal Justice Reform Committee’s bills — HB2171, to make some tweaks to marijuana laws in response to Proposition 207, and HB2165, which would allow some lower-level felons to serve part of their sentences on home arrest instead of in prison.

SB1250, which would let government and public health agencies and some private groups run needle exchange programs, passed the Senate 27-2 and on March 15 made it out of House Health and Human Services unanimously. Former Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Peoria, pushed the needle exchange idea for several years, and one of his bills to allow them passed the House last year but didn’t make it through the Senate. 

Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, who is sponsoring it this year, said she opposed needle exchange programs before but Rivero helped to change her mind.

“It took a learning process for me to kind of get there,” she said. “I finally began listening to Representative Rivero, who was intent on educating a lot of us who were really not open to this idea because we really thought we were encouraging drug use by having needle exchange programs available.”



Montgomery to high court opens way for criminal justice changes

Newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Bill Montgomery avoids reporters in the basement of the Executive Tower after being sworn-in. (PHOTO BY DILLON ROSENBLATT/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES)
Newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Bill Montgomery avoids reporters in the basement of the Executive Tower after being sworn-in. (PHOTO BY DILLON ROSENBLATT/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES)

Lawmakers and advocates who’ve sought for years to overhaul Arizona’s criminal justice system are cautiously optimistic that longtime Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s ascension to the state Supreme Court will clear the way for substantive change next legislative session.

During his nearly decade-long term as Maricopa County’s “top cop,” Montgomery and his tough-on-crime policies held great influence at the Capitol, frustrating lawmakers from both parties who watched legislation that succeeded in other red states die in Arizona. But as Montgomery grows into his role as an arbiter of the law instead of an enforcer of it, attorneys expect his voice in new legislation to fade.

Montgomery’s departure from the County Attorney’s Office will give advocates the opportunity to identify other roadblocks on the path to criminal justice reform, said Caroline Isaacs, Tucson director of the American Friends Service Committee and a longtime advocate for changes to the criminal justice system.

“This will be an interesting test case to see what some of the obstructionism is really about,” Isaacs said. “Was it about Bill and his clout or were there other factors at play?”

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said he thinks there are other factors — or other people — at play in blocking lawmakers’ attempts to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system. He wrote one of only two criminal justice bills to make it out of the Legislature this year: a bill that would have prevented prosecutors from pursuing enhanced sentences intended to punish repeat offenders against people who’ve never served time.

The bill passed both the House and Senate on overwhelming margins, but Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed it after receiving a letter from Montgomery and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall. Even though Montgomery’s influence on policy is expected to diminish because of his new role, LaWall and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk are still around and not shy about sharing their opinions, Toma noted.

So are Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, and Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, who as chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary committees, respectively, decide which criminal justice bills get a hearing. Toma’s bill on repetitive offenders only got a vote in the Senate because Sen. J.D. Mesnard gave up one of his own bills that had already made it out of a different committee as a vehicle for Toma’s language.

“I would love to say that (Montgomery moving on) in some ways opens the doors for what we intend to do, but he’s not the only person with influence,” Toma said.

During the years Isaacs has advocated at the Capitol, she said she heard legislators cite Montgomery more than any other prosecutor. Rather than explaining that prosecutors disliked a bill, lawmakers would say Montgomery didn’t like it, she said. 

In addition to Montgomery’s public testimony on legislation, advocates have grown used to hearing about Montgomery’s behind-the-scenes conversations, Isaacs said.

“There’s no question,” she said. “We would hear whispers about secret meetings or that Bill Montgomery was seen on campus, and then all of a sudden bills went ‘kaboom.’”

Montgomery’s successor could have a substantial impact on criminal justice bills in the next session and beyond, she said. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors will soon appoint a Republican attorney to fill the remainder of Montgomery’s term.

Freshman Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, who’s made criminal justice his main focus at the Legislature, said he sees Montgomery’s move to the Supreme Court as an opportunity to move the ball forward on the work he wants to do.  Blackman turned down entreaties from the National Republican Congressional Committee to run in the swing 1st Congressional District because he wanted more time in the Legislature to work on criminal justice issues, and he has spent the summer leading an ad hoc committee focused on changing how Arizona sentences prisoners. 

The ad hoc committee Blackman runs is based on a bill he introduced last session that Montgomery opposed. It never received a hearing.

Blackman invited Montgomery to speak to that ad hoc committee, but Montgomery would only meet privately with him. The two men have a good working relationship even though they disagree on issues, Blackman said, adding that Montgomery’s departure might remind fellow lawmakers who sought his advice that it’s ultimately up to the House, Senate and Ducey to make decisions.

“With him at the Supreme Court, it’s going to bring the ball back in our court,” Blackman said. “When I say in our court, I mean the folks that are elected to actually do our jobs and make those hard decisions. I look at it as an opportunity to continue the good work we’ve done.”

New Arizona prison boss once restricted books for inmates

FILE - This July 23, 2014 file photo shows a state prison in Florence, Ariz. A book that discusses the impact of the criminal justice system on black men is being kept out of the hands of Arizona prison inmates. The American Civil Liberties Union is calling on the Arizona Department of Corrections to rescind a ban on "Chokehold: Policing Black Men." (AP Photo/File)
This July 23, 2014 file photo shows a state prison in Florence.  (AP Photo/File)

The new head of the state Department of Corrections is a career employee of the federal Bureau of Prisons where last year he instituted a policy that restricted access to books by inmates.

On Monday, Gov. Doug Ducey tapped David Shinn to take over the $1 billion a year system which has a staff of 8,500, houses nearly 34,000 inmates and oversees another 8,200 in private prisons.

Shinn is currently the assistant director of the Program Review Division for the federal Bureau of Prisons.

David Shinn
David Shinn

His official biography for that agency said he oversees a wide variety of areas, including guiding managers in the assessment of operations, assisting management in the strategic planning process, and coordinating and monitoring oversight activities of auditors. In that last role, according to the governor’s office, he oversaw more than 575 audits annually.

But it was his position before that, as complex warden at the federal prison at Victorville, Calif., that generated some protest and publicity.

Last year, in that position, Shinn implemented a policy that prohibited inmates from obtaining books from a publisher, bookstore, book club, friends or family through the mail. The order said it was done to “increase the safety and security of staff and inmates.”

Instead, inmates were told they would have to submit an electronic request, specifying not just the book  title, author and edition but the unique International Standard Book number. The staff then would respond with a book price – retail plus a 30 percent markup, plus shipping.

Mailings were restricted to no more than five soft-cover books, with that number being the absolute maximum any inmate could possess “to prevent the materials from becoming sanitation, security and/or a housekeeping hazard.”

Shinn, in the memo, said this was in response to “multiple occurrences involving illicit drugs.”

The change drew immediate fire.

“This policy is a discriminatory and destructive attack on access to literature and other reading and educational materials for thousands of people in prison, shutting them off from works that can reduce recidivism and better connect them to the outside world,” said Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs for PEN America, a charitable organization which includes writers, editors, publishers and other writing professionals.

In the press release last year after the policy was implemented, Lopez said it forces inmates “to pay potentially exorbitant prices for books they could receive for free from friends, family or charities.” And she said that effectively makes it impossible for some inmates to access books not available in prison libraries.

Lopez told Capitol Media Services on Monday that the policy, implemented at Victorville and one other federal prison in California, was rescinded after public pressure from her organization and others.

Ducey’s office would not make Shinn available nor provide contact information. Instead, gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak provided a prepared statement, saying that Ducey was “aware” before he appointed Shinn about the policy limiting access to books.

“This was a policy geared towards mitigating any narcotics and illegal contraband from entering the prisons,” Ptak said. “He will prioritize security for everyone in our prisons while continuing Arizona’s focus on preparing inmates for success after serving their time.”

Shinn replaces Charles Ryan who retired at the end of last month.

That resignation came as a report on the agency prepared by two former Arizona Supreme Court justices concluding that Ryan was “surprisingly uninformed” about what was going on in the Department of Corrections, including locks that did not work and inmates leaving their cells and starting fights and fires. The justices said Ryan was cut off from what was happening by being surrounded by “yes” men.

Ducey said at the time he wanted to “change the culture” at the agency with a new director.

In a prepared statement announcing Shinn’s appointment, the governor said his goal was to find someone with extensive corrections experience, a record of solving problems and getting results, and a passion for public service.

“David Shinn is that leader,” Ducey said.

The appointment drew praise from Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee, which has been at the forefront of urging reforms in Arizona’s prison system and had previously called for Ryan to be fired.

“I don’t know a thing about the guy,” Isaacs told Capitol Media Services.

“What I can say is it’s encouraging that the governor saw fit to hire outside the department,” she said. “That hopefully signals that he is willing to bring in someone who’s going to make some significant changes.”

Shinn’s Bureau of Prisons bio says he started with that agency in 1991 as a legal technician at a San Diego correctional facility. He also was a corrections officer in New Jersey, leading to “positions of increasing responsibility,” including to Victorville and, in August 2018, his current position in the program review division.

Prison transition program allowing for early release expires

Barbed wire

Gov. Doug Ducey this week extended a prison re-entry and rehabilitation program that was slated to go offline due to a lapse in legislative authorization on July 1, giving some relief to criminal justice advocates who worried that a door was about to shut on a valuable opportunity for incarcerated people to end their sentences early.

Ducey on July 1 signed an executive order extending several state programs that had fallen by the wayside in the truncated legislative session, including the Department of Corrections’ Transition Program.

More than 1,000 people leave prison each year through the program, which provides for an early release of those convicted of non-violent crimes to seek transitional services, such as drug rehabilitation, job placement and so on. But when lawmakers last authorized the program, they set a July 1 sunset date, Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said.

Without Ducey’s extension, the department would lose its authorization to operate the program, and would have had to suspend it until the Legislature reconvened.

“It’s a boutique program, but it’s a good model,” said Caroline Isaacs, program director for the American Friends Service Committee. “It gives people a warm handoff.”

The department’s other release programs continue to be operational as well, as they do not require repeated authorization from the Legislature.

Prisoners technically pay for the program themselves — 5 percent of an inmate’s gross wages “shall be used exclusively to fund the transition program,” state statute says. Those deductions would have ceased along with the program had Ducey not stepped in.

It’s one of several small items with potentially serious implications that the Legislature let slip as all eyes turned to COVID. But with fears mounting about the public health risks inside the prison system, the program — which lawmakers last authorized in 2018 — would provide a small source of relief for those worried about contracting the virus while on the inside.

The hope was that the Legislature could make statutory tweaks — such as the one needed to reauthorize the Transition Program — in a later special session after this year’s early adjournment. But the governor’s office has shown little interest in bringing lawmakers back to the Capitol.

“This would be a top priority,” said Rep. Kirsten Engel. D-Tucson, an attorney who sits on the House Judiciary Committee.

In the 2016 fiscal year, the last period for which the Department of Corrections makes data publicly available, 1,040 people were released to the program. Lamoreaux did not respond to requests for more recent data. The state’s prison system is over capacity, and neither Ducey nor Arizona Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Reentry Director David Shinn have expressed interest in the kind of sweeping prisoner releases that leaders in other states have pursued to mitigate some of the COVID-19 transmission risks inherent to a ballooning corrections system.

“The lack of a special session should not be an excuse,” said Engel, a frequent agitator for systemic change within the department.

She joined other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee in a letter last week asking Ducey to use his “authority as the chief executive of this state to issue an order to temporarily continue the transition program…” in lieu of a legislative authorization.

The letter continues: “The program is critical to the successful reentry of many incarcerated individuals, whose already difficult process of reentry will be made even more challenging by the social and economic realities of COVID-19.”

Quaker group seeks drug-law reform, treatment to reduce prison populations

More than one-fifth of Arizona prisoners are serving time for drug offenses, according to a new report from a justice reform group.

The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization focused on peace and justice, released a report August 3 based on a year of data in prisons in Maricopa, Pima and Yavapai counties.

The group defined a drug offense by looking at the state’s statutes on possession, use, manufacturing and sale of drugs, and focused on marijuana, narcotics and methamphetamines.

The data also showed racial disparities in sentencing, with black Arizonans serving 25 percent longer sentences for drug crimes compared to other racial groups.

The committee wants to see drug possession reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor and drug sentencing restructured in Arizona. Ideally, the state would take a public health approach and seek to treat the underlying addiction that led to the drug crime instead of incarcerating people, the group said.

Caroline Isaacs, director of American Friends Service Committee, makes a point during a press conference Aug. 3, 2017, to introduce a report the group published on the high number of drug offenders in prison. (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)
Caroline Isaacs, director of American Friends Service Committee, makes a point during a press conference Aug. 3, 2017, to introduce a report the group published on the high number of drug offenders in prison. (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

“You can’t punish a disease out of people,” said Caroline Isaacs, the director of the American Friends Service Committee.

Yet only about 3 percent of those in prison who have serious substance abuse histories are actually receiving treatment for addiction at any given time, the report found.

The report estimates $588,655 is spent each day to incarcerate people for drug offenses in the Arizona prison system. The cost for treatment would likely be much less, the group said.

Isaacs called the money spent on drug offenders an “obscene expenditure of taxpayer dollars,” especially considering the high recidivism rate in Arizona.

The Arizona Department of Corrections houses inmates based on the court’s instruction, so it isn’t the appropriate agency to comment on any sentencing laws or policies, its spokesman, Andrew Wilder, said in an email.

But Wilder said state agencies, including Corrections and the Governor’s Office, want to reduce recidivism as well. He said the department is “aggressively working to do that” by collaborating with other agencies on programs and policies to help people before and after they’re released from prison.

Terry Blevins, a former police officer in Gila County who now works for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit against drug prohibition, said he saw the effects of drug addiction constantly as an officer. But he didn’t always have the ability to help people struggling with addiction and instead had to arrest them.

He said the state needs to “stop the cycle” of crime and addiction, and the committee report provides concrete evidence the current regime of laws and sentencing practices isn’t helping the problem.

Gov. Doug Ducey has taken some steps on justice reform related to addiction. The Department of Corrections is piloting a program to give opioid addicts a high-blocking drug, people convicted of felony drug offenses can now get food stamps, and the state declared an emergency for the opioid epidemic.

Isaacs praised these steps, but said the focus needs to extend beyond the opioid crisis and be applied across the board to drug laws.

And she’s encouraged by the national dialogue around sentencing and justice reform, citing sources on both the right, like the Reason Foundation and the Goldwater Institute, and the left that are interested in making changes.

For many other states, criminal justice reform is “old news,” Isaacs said. She hopes the committee report will provide elected officials and policymakers the evidence they need to create laws and programs that address the disparities and inadequacies her group identified.

“This is not as big a lift as it previously was. … We have nowhere to go but up,” she said.

Report lists economic benefits of early prison release


A report detailing economic benefits of proposed expanded earned release credits gives a look into a possible new middle ground in the debate on revamping Arizona’s prison system.

The report by Rounds Consulting Group analyzed the earned release credits proposal in the 2020 Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act ballot initiative, which didn’t make the ballot in November after it failed to get enough valid petition signatures. 

The report found Arizona could save $1.4 billion in the first 10 years after enacting policy that expands earned release credits. The increase in state tax revenues due to the workforce growth resulting from fewer incarcerated people would contribute an additional $107 million, the report said.

Arizona currently has the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the country. In the report’s most optimistic projection, proposed earned release policy could reduce Arizona’s prison population by 22.6%. A conservative projection predicted a reduction of 17.8%.

This movement of people from prisons to the workforce would have an economic impact similar to 30 large-scale high-tech manufacturing businesses with a total of 15,000 new high-wage jobs, the report said.

The benefits don’t stop there. The report’s analysis didn’t factor in the impacts of more efficient uses of tax revenues and savings as a result of expanded earned release credits policy. 

Jim Rounds
Jim Rounds

“Lawmakers are starting to think like business owners, and they’re thinking if we’re going to spend taxpayer dollars, we should at least get some taxpayer dollars back in return,” said Jim Rounds, president of Rounds Consulting Group. “So in this case, if we save a billion and a half, that’s great. What do we do with it?” 

Reinvestment into things like infrastructure, education, economic initiatives and tax reform could stretch the impacts of earned release credit policy even further, he said.

Rounds said in discussions about prison restructuring, those on the far left prioritize social justice issues more than the economy, and those on the far right are concerned about bloated government and inefficient spending, so those two groups seem to be on board with expanding the release credits.

The report’s findings could appeal to the more pragmatic middle-aligned lawmakers who are more focused on balancing a variety of priorities, he said.

“We’re trying to show that there’s benefits that are significant, not just helping individuals get their lives back, but also helping to build the economy,” Rounds said. 

Through debates over expanding earned release credit policy in Arizona the past few years, many bills have failed to gain enough support to move forward.

Under Arizona’s “Truth in Sentencing” law, people convicted of crimes must serve at least 85% of their sentences. The proposed earned release credit policy would have allowed people convicted of non-violent crimes to take one day off of their sentences for every day served and encouraged participation in rehabilitative programs.

Similar laws in other states also imposed minimum sentences in response to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which incentivized states to increase the time violent offenders spend in prison through federal grants, but Arizona was one of only two states that applied the 85% minimum across the board, not just to violent offenders.

Donna Hamm
Donna Hamm

Donna Hamm, founder and director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, said since the law was passed, smaller incremental changes to the criminal code have further lengthened sentences. Hamm said legislators are trying to increase the earned release credits in order to reduce the 85% requirement, rather than completely throwing out the current code and starting from scratch.

HB2713, introduced by Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, is a step in the right direction for loosening the restrictions in Arizona’s current criminal code, she said.

The bill would allow people with drug convictions to reduce their sentences by as much as 50% and people convicted of other nonviolent crimes by as much as 33%. The bill passed the House 47-11 in early March and is currently in the Senate.

“I think that it would be difficult for legislators to argue that 2713 is so wildly liberal, you know, let’s fling open the prison doors and release everyone type of legislation,” Hamm said. “I think it’s reasonable. From what I understand it has good bipartisan support, and hopefully it will also have the governor’s support if it makes it to his desk.”

Kurt Altman, Arizona state director for Right on Crime, said lack of education has played a major part in opposition to earned release credit policy. He said when lawmakers first come to the state Capitol, they have specific goals in one area and it can be hard to get educated on all the other issues they now have a say in.

“I always say it’s amazing how many people come in and say they’re fiscal conservatives but are willing to throw money after money after money at the prison systems in the name of public safety without really analyzing that,” Altman said. “If we’re really looking at this, fiscally are we getting a benefit out of that?”

Now, people are starting to realize there is a “human aspect” to revamping the criminal justice system, he said.

Kurt Altman
Kurt Altman

“I think people are starting to really realize, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, that on a human level, we can’t just turn [incarcerated people] loose and be like, ‘Good luck,’” Altman said. The proposed earned release credit policy would help provide the help people need after they leave prison, like treatment, housing, job training and education.

American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization advocating for peace and social justice, has worked alongside FWD.us, a pro-immigration lobbying group, on efforts toward restructuring sentencing laws in Arizona. Caroline Isaacs, Arizona program director for American Friends Service Committee, said the new report gives the state insight that hasn’t been widely considered before.

“Just a broader look at the economic benefit of people being free, that people are a resource that are crucial to our state, and if we provide them opportunities to just do what they already want to do, which is live their lives and get a job and take care of their families, then everybody wins, and to demonstrate that in real numbers I think is amazing,” she said.

She said more and more lawmakers from across the political spectrum have been speaking up about the ineffectiveness of the current criminal justice system, and she anticipates a change toward more policies like the proposed earned release policy.

“There has to be something better and it’s not a zero sum game,” she said. “It’s not like you have punishment or you have utter lawlessness, criminals running around the streets, like it is not that black and white, and there’s actual science and research and models for how to do this better, and everyone benefits.”


Secrecy prevails as executions to resume


Arizona is readying to resume executions after nearly seven years, although the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry did not provide reassurances that the medical team or the drugs used would avoid issues that surfaced through litigation leading up to and during the hiatus.

The department has updated its protocol since the most recent execution in Arizona, that of Joseph Wood in 2014, but hasn’t quashed concerns that it might not follow it. Wood snorted and gasped for air for nearly two hours as he was given 15 doses of the sedative Midazolam and hydromorphone, a painkiller.

Currently, 20 death row inmates have exhausted their appeals in Arizona. 

Federal public defender Dale Baich, who specializes in death penalty cases, represented Wood. He said in the past, the department has said, “Trust us,” but then after litigation, it became clear the state was cutting corners.

He noted that when the state wants to tackle an infrastructure or repair project, all of the information is public — the bids, the names of the contractors, the cost. But much information about who is administering what to the condemned is kept confidential.

“Why is it that when it comes to carrying out executions, the state wants to shroud everything in this veil of secrecy?” Baich asked. “The public should be concerned about the qualifications of the people doing this work. The public should be concerned about the drug coming from a legitimate source and not the gray market.”

Caroline Isaacs, Arizona program director for American Friends Service Committee, said she had no faith in the department to be transparent. The committee is a Quaker organization advocating for peace and social justice.

“If we can’t get information about things like whether or not the locks work, or whether or not their software is operational, I have zero confidence that we’re going to get anything even close to resembling transparency on execution,” Isaacs said. 

The department did not answer whether a medical professional had been hired to oversee the executions or whether the department could assure the public that the medical team was qualified, instead pointing to state law that protects the identities of those involved in executions.

But Baich noted that there have been documented instances of people not being qualified to do what needs to be done as physician executioner. 

During the hiatus from executions, the department has made changes to protocol regarding what drugs it can use and added some transparency measures, such as allowing witnesses — journalists, family members and officials — to watch and hear the execution, starting when the condemned enters and is strapped down and to see the drugs being administered. 

As part of a 2017 settlement, the department agreed not to use paralytic drugs in future executions and is now limited to the barbiturates pentobarbital or sodium thiopental.

ADCRR Director David Shinn wrote in a letter to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich on March 5 that the department “is prepared to perform its legal obligation and commence the execution process as part of the legally imposed sentence” and has been searching for sources of the drugs needed to administer the executions.

However, in the Attorney General Office’s response, chief of staff Joseph Kanefield noted that ADCRR was “finalizing outstanding details” and would determine by March 16 whether further steps were required.

ADCRR did not give a specific answer as to whether it had determined its readiness by that date.

“The Department continues to work closely with the AZ Attorney General’s Office to bring justice for the victims’ families,” its spokesperson said in a March 17 email.

The department has secured pentobarbital, the same drug the federal government has used since resuming executions in 2020. A U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in 2019 that death row inmates do not have the right to know additional information about execution drugs beyond certain information about the chemical composition and dosages of the drugs, as well as the procedures for administering them. 

“Pentobarbital has been administered successfully for many years throughout the State and federal correctional systems,” ADCRR spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said in an email.

Baich said the source of the drugs is still a concern.

“The Controlled Substances Act requires that a physician needs to write a prescription for a patient to get a compounded drug, and we don’t know if the department is following federal law on that,” Baich said.

The department has had other problems in the past with procuring execution drugs legally. An attempt to import sodium thiopental from India in 2015 ended with Customs and Border Protection seizing the drugs at Sky Harbor International Airport.

State prisons have potential for nearly 100% infection rate

Row of bars and American old prison cells
Row of bars and American old prison cells

The Arizona Public Health Association is urging the state’s health director to do more to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the prisons as studies and public health officials predict a nearly 100% infection rate.

The state currently houses more than 41,000 inmates who have no way to socially distance themselves from behind bars and are not permitted to wear any face protection, which could lead to a high number of positive cases over the next three weeks.

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association and the state’s former health director, said if inmates end up in a more serious medical situation, they would end up in the regular community hospital system.

“How’d you like to be a hospital trying to deal with COVID patients from the community and now you have a contract with DOC, and you have all the extra security things that you have to deal with?” he said.

The private health organization, which wrote a letter on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee, urged Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ to make sure the prisons are doing enough to protect the health of inmates and employees.

“I urge you to direct your team to ‘…evaluate the medical and health-related facilities and services that are provided to inmates to determine that the facilities and services meet the applicable standards that are adopted by the director of the Department of Health Services,’” the they wrote on April 21.

Caroline Isaacs, the program director for American Friends Service Committee-Arizona, said her group and the health department held a call on April 24 to go over measures the prisons could take to become safer.

“They heard our concerns and agreed to provide us with some information, including what specific direction they have given ADC,” Isaacs said.

Will Humble
Will Humble

Humble said his expert advice for the corrections department would be to ask DHS to “lend me one of their most talented epidemiologists to come in and do advisories at all the prisons and just create a checklist form.” Granted, Humble said he does not know what measures prisons are taking, since he no longer is at DHS.

“But I do know, what I would want is to have somebody who’s a professional at Infection Control and Prevention to come in and give me some pointers about how to change our processes from how they operate all day long,” he said.

A spokesman for DHS said the department has had an epidemiologist assigned to serve as a liaison to the Department of Corrections “since the beginning of the outbreak.”

“They helped draft the Arizona specific correctional facility guidance and continue to provide technical assistance, as needed,” spokesman Chris Minnick said. “At this time, our understanding is that ADCRR is complying with CDC recommendations for COVID-19 in correctional settings.”

Minnick did not go into further detail or express any inclination that Christ would sway corrections into including infection information about prison employees.

At least one staffer and one inmate at Perryville prison, both of whom work in the kitchen, have tested positive for COVID-19, but the corrections department hasn’t allowed any other inmates there to be tested, and refuses to release data about testing employees.

The only reason the information about the staffer came to light was due to public records that ABC15 obtained showing the employee in the prison contracted the virus, and after prison officials circulated a memo saying that nobody else was at risk, ABC15 received a tip from a union worker that the employee who tested positive worked in the kitchen where they have repeated contact with inmates. The prison would neither confirm nor deny that claim.

Carlos Garcia, the executive director for the Arizona Correctional Peace Officers Association, described a kitchen employee being infected as a worst-case scenario.

“The worst person who can catch this is a kitchen officer…They’re having contact with inmates left and right, staff left and right. It’s close proximity,” Garcia said.

Citing federal medical privacy laws, the Arizona Department of Corrections has refused to release information on the number of staff and officers who have tested positive for COVID-19. Other states have been routinely releasing that information – either meaning those states aren’t following the law, or Arizona is applying it too broadly. The Governor’s Office does not seem likely to force the department to release testing information about its employees, either.

Patrick Ptak, Gov. Doug Ducey’s spokesman, said via text that agencies are “prohibited from disclosing information that would reveal an employee’s identity or confidential medical information.”

Of course, nobody is seeking their names, only the number of guards who have tested positive – the same information the department already provides about inmates daily. Ptak did not respond to any follow up questions including the legal basis for withholding information. Corrections Director David Shinn previously acknowledged that prison staffers have tested positive, but he did not know the number of such cases.

One prison reform organization said the lack of information and transparency coming from corrections is “unconscionable.”

“There seems to be an inordinate amount of desire by government leaders to keep the public in the dark as much as possible about what is truly transpiring in our nursing homes and prisons,” said Donna Hamm, director of Middle Ground Prison Reform. “These are the places where our most vulnerable populations live.”

Hamm said though at least in nursing homes patients are in separate rooms with clean showers and bathrooms and have plenty of soap and can wear protective gear if they so choose. The same cannot be said for inmates.

Donna Hamm
Donna Hamm

“The vast majority of prisoners live in dormitory and bunk bed style open rooms separated by about three feet,” Hamm said.

She said she has also heard reports from prison staff that inmates don’t have soap at all or worse.

“Inmates [are] being turned away when attempting to report to medical; coughing/wheezing inmates filling the dorm space at night; staff members not wearing masks; staff not changing gloves even after conducting strip searches; dining halls filled with people and no attempt to social distance,” Hamm said.

Meanwhile, Shinn continues to repeat his unsubstantiated claim that prisons are safer than the general community. In a letter to Hamm and later on KTAR, Shinn said, “The greatest threat that we face right now is not within our prisons; it is truly within our communities.”

Humble disagreed.

“The virus comes in with the staff and once it’s in, then it’s gonna spread, and it’s in close quarters,” Humble said. “It’s an environment much like a cruise ship, to be honest.”

And in prison, social distancing is not an option. Plus inmates are prohibited from wearing face protection despite them being put to work to make masks for prison staff and other law enforcement throughout the state and “each and every state employee.” Though at first, employees were told to not wear masks because it would scare the inmates.

Now, while prisoners are separated from the public, employees come and go from their respective communities, likely spreading the virus inside and outside the prison walls even if they don’t show symptoms.

“They could still be asymptomatic and spread it to the inmates,” Humble said.

But inmates still are not being tested.

Perryville, the all-female prison complex in Goodyear, houses roughly 4,100 inmates, one of the most populated facilities in Arizona. But it didn’t test a single inmate there until April 25. The test came back positive two days later.

Testing rates at other prisons are abysmally low, while rates of infection among those tested are more than double the statewide average. Only 0.5% of inmates have been tested so far.

The most recent testing numbers show the Department of Corrections, which houses 41,500 prisoners statewide, has conducted 210 tests on prisoners showing symptoms of the coronavirus – 50 came back positive and eight are still pending. That means prisons have a 25% positive rate of COVID-19, which is 2.5 times the statewide rate (discounting the pending tests). As of April 30, the rate of positive results among those tested statewide is just roughly 10% (7,648 positive cases and 71,786 people tested).

One simple improvement the corrections department could make would be to take the temperatures of prison staff every day to monitor the situation. However, it needs to do a lot more to prevent the virus from rapidly spreading throughout the prison communities. Humble said it really comes down to testing.

“You have to have the testing capacity in order to identify who’s got the illness and who doesn’t. And then you put mitigation measures in place,” he said.

Hamm agreed that testing is the most important practice to be done, but also suggested other measures.

“The ADCRR could take vastly more aggressive measures to reduce the spread by simply temporarily issuing alcohol-based cleaners, plenty of soap, masks to each prisoner, and requiring staff to wear gloves that are changed frequently and to wear masks themselves. Finally, testing, testing, testing of both staff and inmates,” she said.

A recent study estimates roughly 99% of the state’s prison population will test positive for COVID-19.

FWD.us based its projections on the Recidiviz COVID-19 Model for Incarceration, which uses “incarceration-specific” measures of how COVID-19 would likely spread within a prison or jail, along with state data on incarcerated populations to generate a likely estimate of total future COVID-19 cases in the incarcerated population, and related hospitalizations and deaths.

“Without population reductions and more protective measures within prisons, COVID-19 will peak in Arizona’s prisons in about a month,” the model predicted, estimating 41,000 inmates testing positive and 3,100 employees. Though staff numbers are currently unknown, union workers and some employees have provided estimates that roughly 30 employees have tested positive.

Advocates have been calling on Ducey to release nonviolent inmates to help save some lives, but that option does not seem to be likely. Under its current projection, FWD.us estimates at least 1,400 incarcerated people will be hospitalized, utilizing 12.6& of Arizona’s total hospital bed capacity.

“Over its course, and without action, the virus is projected to kill 360 individuals incarcerated in Arizona prisons, three times as many people as are currently on Arizona’s death row,” it says.

And if numbers get that high, there’s no telling if the prisons will be equipped to handle that many hospitalized inmates at their facilities.

“I hope they [projections] are dead wrong, but we should be acting as though they are spot on,” Hamm said.

State retirement fund invests in private prisons that hold large contracts


The Arizona State Retirement System has invested in the country’s largest private prison operators, which also hold state contracts.

The state pension fund owns 49,800 shares of CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corp. of America, the largest private prison company, according to the most recent ASRS filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. That document, filed on Aug. 2, also shows the fund holds 52,450 shares of The GEO Group, the second largest giant in the private prison industry. ASRS has held shares in both companies since at least 2012.

CoreCivic operates the state’s Red Rock Correctional Facility in Eloy, and GEO operates four state facilities, the Arizona State Prison Florence West, Kingman and Phoenix West and the Central Arizona Correctional Facility.

ASRS spokesman David Cannella said the shares were valued at $2.6 million based on their closing price per share Tuesday.

Cannella said the investments were made in passive index portfolios, meaning the ASRS investment staff does not make specific stock selections.

“You would be hardpressed to name a company that we’re not invested in,” he said. “In terms of that, it’s not as if somebody was sitting around here and saying, ‘That’s a good company for us to invest in because they’re local or anything like that.’ It would have come up through some sort of index or an outside manager picking indexes on their side.”

The state pension fund could dump the CoreCivic and GEO shares, Cannella said, but investing in an index like the S&P 500 would not allow ASRS to explicitly exclude one company or another.

Because of the nature of the indexes, he said investing in a company the state also contracts with is “probably” normal.

“I don’t know how granular you want to get,” he said. “Say the state has a contract with Coca-Cola to fill their vending machines. We’re (invested) in Coca-Cola.”

But the investments in private prisons – among others – raised a red flag for American Friends Service Committee Director Caroline Isaacs.

Isaacs said ASRS investing in the private prison industry was “problematic on so many levels,” namely because doing so puts the success of CoreCivic and GEO in the state’s interest.

From a legal standpoint, she could not say whether the investments created a conflict of interest. But she argued members of the pension, like state professors, are now tied to the same companies that “syphon” funds from state agencies, like the universities.

In a blog post published Monday, Isaacs cited a Grand Canyon Institute report that said Arizona spends 60 percent more on prisons than on state colleges and universities.

“All of those professors are getting invested in the company that ate their lunch?” she said. “It’s bizarre.”

Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, said he would call on Gov. Doug Ducey and ASRS Board Chairman Kevin McCarthy to divest in both companies.

Though the investments were nothing new, they were news to Cardenas. More concerning was that ASRS had recently increased its shares in CoreCivic, purchasing an additional 900 shares in the second quarter.

“There are companies in this world that many people morally disapprove of, morally disagree with,” Cardenas said. “And this is certainly one of those companies.”

Cannella said ASRS’ goal is simply to get investors the best return for an appropriate risk, and the fund does not engage in “social investing.”

In contrast, he said the California Public Employees’ Retirement System is socially conscious, opting not to invest in companies that, for example, use coal.

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Cannella said. “It’s just not what we’re set up to do.”

However, he did note that the Legislature could pass a bill to exclude certain investments.

A 2016 law along those lines prohibits state investments in or contracts with companies that boycott Israel.

Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System spokesman Christian Palmer said PSPRS does not hold shares of either CoreCivic or GEO, but the question has been raised before.

“There is the remote possibility that one of those companies could be included. And when I say remote, I mean remote, remote, remote possibility,” he said. “One of those companies could be included in something like a private equity or even a hedge fund. But we are not immediately aware of any direct or indirect investments in either of those companies.”

Like ASRS, he said the fund is diverse, investing in everything from cranberry farms to bioscience, but social and political considerations are not a factor in how those stocks are selected.


CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Isaacs cited a report by Grand Canyon University. The report was actually published by the Grand Canyon Institute. 

The Breakdown, Episode 11: Where do we even begin?


In this Aug. 25, 2014 file photo, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery speaks during a news conference in Phoenix. Hundreds of immigrants who have been denied bail under a strict Arizona law will now have the opportunity to be released after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014 in the closely watched case. The high court kept intact a lower-court ruling from three weeks ago that struck down the law, which was passed in 2006 amid a series of immigration crackdowns in Arizona over the past decade. Montgomery and Sehriff Joe Arpaio defended the law before the courts.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
In this Aug. 25, 2014 file photo, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery speaks during a news conference in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Last week, the Capitol was abuzz with everything from talk of criminal justice reform to how to fund Arizona’s public education system – and that’s just the beginning.

Improving Arizona criminal justice system has required stakeholders from all sides to come together in an effort to find common ground, but that process is far from over. Advocates point to county prosecutors as the greatest obstacle still standing in the way.

And even as legislators play an important role in that saga, public school teachers and their supporters continue to demand action for the state’s schools. Proposition 301 was extended for two decades, and the state Supreme Court cleared the way for voters to decide the fate of ESA expansion. Still, public school advocates aren’t celebrating just yet – they worry the Legislature will tinker with those measures.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Breakdown on iTunes.

Music in this episode included “Little Idea,” “Creative Minds” and “Energy” by Bensound.