When I started working on criminal justice reform more than 20 years ago, I could not have imagined a day when over 100 people from across Arizona’s political spectrum would come together and reach the consensus that our current system of justice is flawed and needs to be re-examined. But I can now proudly say that I was part of just such a gathering — the 111th Arizona Town Hall.
Elected prosecutors, sitting judges, defense attorneys and even the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections took part in the Town Hall’s two-day statewide convening in Phoenix in November, alongside formerly incarcerated people and their families, advocates, psychologists, service providers and generally interested folks.
We were told to “check your titles at the door” and refer to each other by first names in discussion groups. Everyone’s input was equally valued, and the goal was to produce a consensus, reflecting the agreement of the majority.
The process was a refreshing equalizer for those working within the existing, adversarial criminal justice system, in which there are some who wield tremendous power over others. Through face-to-face, carefully facilitated discussions, there emerged a clear consensus that the get-tough approach of the past has fallen out of favor and the majority of Arizonans overwhelmingly support deep reforms to the existing system.
The recommendations are available on the Town Hall website and will be released more broadly to lawmakers and others in the coming month. They indicate a substantial shift in majority opinion.
Beginning with a discussion of the purpose of our criminal justice system, the draft emphasizes the need to ensure safety, restore survivors of crime to wholeness, maintain fairness and impartiality, address the root causes of crime like substance abuse and mental illness, and to reduce recidivism. Nowhere in the document does it say that the system exists for punishment.
The Town Hall recommendations lay out several concrete steps that Arizona can and should take to bring our system, which results in us claiming one of the top five spots in the nation for levels of incarceration, more in line with the goals of safety and fairness, such as:
- Reassess which behaviors constitute crime, and whether the sentence and ramifications are justified.
- Treat addiction as a public health problem, rather than a criminal act.
- Address behavioral problems early on and outside the criminal justice system to the greatest extent possible.
- Invest in diversion, prevention, and education.
As the Arizona Legislature prepares to convene in January, each member would be well-advised to read the recommendations and take to heart the demonstration of support for sensible, evidence-based criminal justice reform. Given that incoming House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, has signaled his interest in these issues, there is hope that our representatives are finally willing to follow the lead of the majority of other states that have proactively reduced their prison populations and invested in smart alternatives.
It’s about time Arizona’s elected officials got the message: Arizonans are ready for change. The fear-based narrative that has held back reforms for so long has lost traction with the public. We want pragmatic, problem-solving approaches based on objective data and best practices from other states. Given the system’s billion-dollar annual burden on taxpayers, they deserve nothing less.