Profits from seized property are paying for the latest update to a study of Arizona’s prison population that prosecutors use to argue Arizona’s sentencing laws are working appropriately.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is providing the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council with $34,500 to complete the study. Those funds will pay for the services of John Lott, an economist and pro-gun advocate. Lott will review data provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections to update the Prisoners in Arizona report, first published in 2010. The report uses data provided by DOC to determine who’s in prison and for what reasons.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said the funds come from his office’s RICO account, which comes from seized criminal funds. The payment is a sharp increase from what it cost for the last update of the report, when APAAC spent $14,000.
The use of RICO funds to pay for a study that will in turn be used by prosecutors to lobby against criminal justice reform efforts, such as changes to sentencing law, is questionable, but perhaps not illegal, according to Paul Avelar, an attorney with the Institute for Justice.
Paying for such a study doesn’t fit descriptions in state statute dictating that RICO funds be used to pay for gang prevention programs or substance abuse prevention and education programs, Avelar said. Instead, state law refers discretion over other types of expenses to federal guidelines. But those don’t provide much help either, since spending RICO funds on a study of the prison population doesn’t fit the description of either the permitted or impermissible use of forfeiture funds per the U.S. Department of Justice, Avelar said.
“This is part of the problem with the uses of forfeiture funds. The restrictions are written very vaguely, which suggests, potentially, quite broad uses,” Avelar said.
In an email to the Arizona Capitol Times, Montgomery wrote there is justification under federal guidelines. Montgomery described the Prisoners in Arizona report as a crime reduction tool, which he wrote falls under a broad sentence in the DOJ guidelines stating that “equitably shared funds shall be used by law enforcement agencies for law enforcement purposes only.”
Previous versions of the Prisoners in Arizona report appear to have been paid through APAAC’s own budget, according to an email from Elizabeth Ortiz, the executive director of APAAC. Staff could find no record of ever receiving funds earmarked for the project, she said.
Lott’s fee is the steepest price yet for conducting the report. Fischer received roughly $6,000 for his work on the Prisoners in Arizona study in 2009, and more than $16,000 in 2010, according to APAAC invoices. In 2012, when he was paid more than $30,000, he billed 300 hours of work at a rate of $100 per hour.
His rate was slashed in half in 2014, when he was paid $14,000 for 280 hours of research, according to the invoices.
Fischer is ill and unable to conduct the research this time, according to Ortiz.
Montgomery said the higher cost for Lott’s work is partly because he’s new to the research. Lott has also been tasked with establishing the data in such a way that others will be able to more easily update and analyze it in the future without the help of a statistician or economist.
“I’d like to think that this might be the last time APAAC has to do one of these studies,” Montgomery said.