Editor’s note: This column has been edited from the version posted the morning of June 11 to exclude a passage that didn’t meet our standards for attribution in local submissions. 

Arizona’s criminal justice system is bloated and broken. As taxpayers we spend $20,000 more per inmate than per K-12 student. Our state has the fourth-highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. Our country as a whole keeps more people in prison than China and Russia, and we have a higher percentage of people of color behind bars than South Africa did during apartheid. 

Despite this fiscal, constitutional, and humanitarian crisis, Gov. Doug Ducey signed precisely one criminal justice reform bill into law this year. State Bill 1310 will reduce prison sentences for people serving time for simple drug possession who have not been previously convicted of a violent or aggravated felony, but only if they have successfully completed a drug treatment or self-improvement program while in the Arizona Department of Corrections. Here’s the very, very big catch: AZDOC does not currently provide this type of programing, and Arizona’s elected prosecutors successfully fought off an attempt to require AZDOC to do so. 

The fate of SB 1310 and another criminal justice reform bill vetoed by the governor on June 7, SB 1334, demonstrate how Arizona prosecutors, and the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, continue to exercise their extraordinary power to frustrate meaningful criminal justice reform in Arizona. 

SB 1334 would have restored the smallest iota of sentencing discretion to judges in a small number of cases involving multiple offenses committed on the same occasion. Arizona’s most powerful elected prosecutors lined up to kill the bill, including Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk. In public, all three elected officials claim to support some type of criminal justice reform. Yet their claims proved hollow. 

APAAC has had tremendous success changing Arizona law to enshrine prosecutors as the all-powerful chieftains of the criminal justice system, and blocking meaningful reform efforts that might limit their power or ameliorate the suffering of the 42,000 Arizonans currently locked away in state prisons. The culmination of their efforts is the inhumane and unjust criminal system we see all around us today. 

A tragic irony of this state of affairs is that APAAC’s primary funding source is the Criminal Justice Enhancement Fund, a pool of money drawn from fines and fees paid by civil and criminal defendants. This means the people who are hit the hardest by mass incarceration are forced to pay for their prosecutors’ successful efforts to make their prison terms longer, and their lives even bleaker. 

It is all too easy to mouth the slogans and catchphrases of criminal justice reform, but such talk is cheap indeed. If we truly want to disassemble the carceral state and end mass incarceration we must insist actions follow words. APAAC and our elected county attorneys must join the ACLU, Koch Industries, Right on Crime, and numerous state legislators from both parties who are trying to pass meaningful criminal justice reform bills. It is past time for them to stop talking, and start acting. 




Joel Feinman is the Pima County Defender.