As the new legislative session nears, issues like housing affordability, education, and water are expected to be top issues addressed. To kick off our legislative look ahead series, we will start by tackling criminal justice reform.
Arizona has long been known for its failing and falling criminal justice system. With decreasing access to healthcare, staffing issues, and crumbling facilities, those incarcerated and their families are the first to see its negative effects.
To combat this problem, earlier this year, Governor Katie Hobbs ordered an Independent Prison Oversight Commission to review the state’s issues with criminal justice and prison reform. That committee is expected to issue a list of preliminary recommendations to the state that may influence incoming legislation. Many of those issues are happening right here in Pima County.
Pima County Attorney Laura Conover, who is up for re-election in 2024, believes that criminal justice reform begins before those incarcerated make it to the jail doors.
“Some 48,000 people come back out of our state prisons and back into our neighborhoods and into our communities,” Conover said. “We want them to thrive, and to have healthier and safer communities. That starts at the beginning of a case when we're looking at detention in jail or whether you're out and attending your court hearings. It plays a role when we talk about whether our plea offers require prison, or if probation is available.”
Conover believes criminal justice reform has taken a “metro” approach, where reform is being tackled from areas like the county health department to the county supervisors. But Conover still sees that change can come from the legislature as well.
“Arizona remains a cash bail state…which is a point of frustration for me. I would like to see that change at the state level,” Conover said. “We see cash bail hold people in jail for no reason on low-level nonviolent crimes only because they can't pay that low-level cash bail...It's something that the chief of police, the sheriff and I all really agree on that the system is not working for us at all. It's causing terrible crowding in the jail, and worse, and everyone's really righteously concerned about that.”
But when asked what her thoughts were on Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos’ push for a new jail, she said she is never a proponent for increasing the number of people in jail when looking at jail populations.
“I'm already frustrated that there are people in there who should be in a hospital not a jail who should be in a treatment facility and not a jail. So it's very clear to me that our focus should remain exclusively on reducing that population, fixing our initial appearance system, doubling and tripling down on making the jail the last door, not the first door for this growing population that is a threat of harm to themselves more than anything else.”
For others, some view incarceration as a means to rehabilitate those who broke the law. However, access to rehab services behind bars falls short not just locally, but nationwide. One nonprofit program in the state prison system's Whetstone facility in Tucson is working to connect those incarcerated with classes on coding and guarantees them a job upon release. AZPM covered one graduation last May.
We checked back in with one graduate, Nashid Mateen, who was incarcerated for the first time for six years and two weeks. Since his release, he has moved to San Diego to continue his studies through a Harvard course and is creating a new documentary called Prison 2 Success, a series of stories from returning citizens and programs like Persevere Now that will highlight the struggles of reentry into society and the power of second chances.
For Mateen, he wants to give “people the understanding that not everyone who has been to prison is a criminal.” As well he hopes the documentary will “humanize the justice-impacted experience, which could open (people’s) minds and hearts to reforming the criminal justice system.”
Programs like Persevere Now are decided by the state Department of Corrections as to whether or not they will invest in areas like that. Right now, Persevere Now is only in four facilities in the state and six states across the nation. If someone incarcerated wants to enroll, they have to undergo a thorough, strenuous application process. For example, it took Mateen almost two years until he could enroll, going as far as to transfer to Whetstone for the opportunity.
But now, he says Persevere changed his life for the better.
“My point of view is criminal justice reform is something separate from prison reform. I believe that criminal justice reform is something prior to conviction…and then the prison reform is programs like (persevere) and getting these programs inside of the prison to help individuals who really want to help themselves,” Mateen said. “They've been beneficial to me, so I know they can be beneficial to individuals in similar situations.”
Other types of reform can come in the action of record clearance services. Rasa Legal, a legal services company based out in Utah, is expanding its services into Arizona. The legal tech company, which specializes in creating accessible, affordable criminal record clearance services, is holding its grand opening with a free record clearance clinic and resource fair on December 6.
CEO and founder Noella Sudbury says expanding into Arizona was the next step in their plan after seeing wide-ranging success in Utah.
“Arizona has the fifth largest incarceration rate in the nation and it's also one of the states that has the fewest number of lawyers,” Sudbury said. “So what we see is a lot of people who need help, not a lot of lawyers able to provide those services, but also a brand new sealing law, which went into effect in January of this year.”
That law can allow Arizonans to seal their records and erase them entirely from public view, rather than only setting them aside.
“We will tell people what is on their record and whether it's eligible for set aside, sealing, expungement, or rights restoration under Arizona law and I really can't express how powerful that is to put that kind of information in someone's fingertips,” Sudbury said.