The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
These days it is rare to find a person who does not think we have a mass incarceration crisis in this country. Conservatives, liberals and nearly all of the current presidential candidates support some type of criminal justice reform. There is also a growing consensus that one of the main reasons the U.S. remains the prison capital of planet is due to the explosion in felony prosecutions since the late 1970s.
Yet here in Pima County, even in the midst of this “criminal justice reform moment,” none of this has changed how many people we prosecute every year. In 2019 the Pima County Attorney’s Office will file an all-time, record- breaking high number of more than 6,800 felony cases, and prosecutors show no sign of easing off the gas.
This is a curious and concerning trend, especially since Pima County has seen a recent and “significant reduction in crime,” according to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. Yet despite falling crime rates, the County Attorney has long maintained these filings are a necessary evil, required to keep our community “safe.”
On Aug. 16, 2016, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall told our community in this same newspaper, “Who is really in our prisons? Who are we are locking up? It’s just whom you’d expect: murderers, rapists, armed robbers, child molesters, kidnappers, prohibited possessors, gang-bangers, drive-by-shooters, repeat career burglars, auto thieves, arsonists and narco-traffickers.”
If only this were true. During the last fiscal year, the Pima County attorney filed more drug cases than any other type of felony. Thirty-six percent of their prosecutions were for drug offenses. Six percent were for sex crimes, and 1% were homicides. Sadly this is no anomaly. The Pima County Attorney has filed more felony drug charges than any other type of charge for 14 of the last 17 fiscal years.
According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, as of October 2019 the highest percentage of people in Arizona’s prisons — 20.9% — are there for drug-related offenses; 1.4% are there for sex assault, while 0.4% are there for domestic violence.
Lest we think this can be justified by claiming people serving drug sentences are all international drug traffickers and “cartel members,” we should pause and do some homework first. Of all felony drug cases the Pima County Attorney filed during the last fiscal year — including possession, trafficking, and sales charges — 53% involved less than one gram of drugs, and 70% involved two grams or less. This means 70% of the people charged with felony drug crimes in our community were accused of having two sugar packets or less of drugs.
It costs taxpayers $25,000 to keep these individuals in prison for one year, and $35,000 per year to keep them in county jail.
One quickly runs out of superlatives when thinking about the U.S. criminal justice system. It is the most expensive and largest in the world. It is the most racially disparate, the most classist and the cruelest of any democracy. Its central function is the caging of human bodies in subhuman conditions for often victimless offenses, and it leads to the physical and emotional torture of individuals and the devastation of underprivileged communities.
And yet filings keep going up, people’s faith goes down and the band plays on.
Joel Feinman is the Pima County public defender.