The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich is jeopardizing the opportunity for certain county jail inmates to pursue their high school education. In a recent opinion, he says the state cannot pay to educate nondisabled inmates aged 19 to 21. An aide defended Brnovich, saying, “We follow what the law says, not what we want it to be or what we think it should be.” That sounds good, but Brnovich’s opinion relies on an outlier statute in the face of contrary statutory language and the Arizona Constitution.
Arizona Revised Statute 15-913.01(A) reads: “Each county that operates a county jail shall offer an education program to serve all prisoners who are under eighteen years of age and prisoners with disabilities who are age twenty-one or younger.”
Brnovich says that means the Legislature intended to disqualify some otherwise eligible inmates over the age of 18 from receiving educational services. The language may be a drafting error, but it says what it says, and that’s enough for Brnovich, whose interpretation begins and ends “with the statute’s plain language.”
The statute is an outlier, as illustrated by the statute preceding it, ARS 15-913, which applies to juvenile detention centers.
All students confined to juvenile detention centers are entitled to educational services through age 21. What if they’re transferred to a county jail? ARS 15-913.01(B) states, “The county school superintendent shall develop policies and procedures for the transfer of educational records of any prisoner confined in a county jail who has been transferred from a juvenile detention center.”
Any prisoner – even those over the age of 18. Why would the Legislature require the transfer of educational records unless they anticipate a continuation of educational services in the jail setting? Brnovich never addresses that.
Pima County argues ARS 15-821 requires educational services for all inmates up to age 21. It reads, “Unless otherwise provided by article 1.1 of this chapter or by any other law, all schools shall admit children who are between the ages of six and twenty-one years.” Brnovich argues that 15-913.01 is an “other law” that limits state funding under the “otherwise provided” clause.
Brnovich never mentions the Arizona Constitution, which mandates a “general and uniform public school system” (Title 11, Article 1) and states, “The legislature shall provide for a system of common schools … open to all pupils between the ages of six and twenty-one years” (Title 11, Article 6). The two provisions require a general and uniform public school system for all pupils between the ages of 6 and 21 years.
The statute Brnovich relies on violates the constitution by eliminating educational services for students in county jails who constitutionally qualify for them. “When a state statute conflicts with Arizona’s Constitution, the constitution must prevail,” ruled the Arizona Supreme Court in 2013 in Dobson v. State. Substitute “Attorney General’s Opinion” for “state statute,” because neither can override the constitution. Brnovich relied on the “plain language” of an outlier statute rather than the “plain language” of the constitution. His opinion is flawed and the consequences will be costly.
Lack of funding doesn’t let Pima County off the hook. ARS 15-821 says schools “shall admit children who are between the ages of six and twenty-one years.” It does not say “may” and the constitution invalidates the age limitation in 15-931.01(A).
The County must educate them, with or without state funding. Brnovich’s opinion may compel Pima County residents to pay to educate students the state prefers to ignore.