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The Appeal Podcast: Criminal Justice Reform Hits Roadblock in Arizona

With Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee

Maricopa County Attorney Bill MontgomeryFlickr/Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dozens of states have reformed their drug laws in recent years, but Arizona remains a stubborn outlier. In Maricopa County, for example, a recent report found that drug cases represent the “overwhelming majority” of charges filed. Up against powerful County Attorney Bill Montgomery and a culture of tough-on-crime posturing, reformers have hit roadblocks as they push for change. Today we are joined by Arizona activist Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee to discuss the fight to make these repressive drug laws a thing of the past.

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Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us at The Appeal magazine’s main Twitter and Facebook pages and as always you can subscribe and rate us on iTunes.

Despite drug reform progress in dozens of states over the past few years, Arizona remains an outlier stuck in the past with one county having almost half of their prison population in for drug-related charges. Going up against powerful County Attorney Bill Montgomery and a culture of racism and mindless tough on crime posturing, reformers of hit roadblocks getting anything to change. Today we’re joined by Arizona activist Caroline Isaacs of the American Friends Service Committee to talk about how reformers there have set out to make 2020 the year Arizona’s harsh drug laws finally catch up to the rest of the country.

[Begin Clip]

Caroline Isaacs: What we’re seeing is this ridiculous process whereby we are going to send someone through the criminal punishment system, saddle them with a felony conviction that will make them virtually unhouseable and unemployable for the rest of their lives, traumatize them further by putting them in a dangerous, chaotic inhumane environment and then offer them help.

[End Clip]

Adam: Caroline, thank you so much for joining us.

Caroline Isaacs: Thanks for having me.

Adam: So your organization, American Friends Service Committee, has released a report a couple of years ago and has done work in this space for some time on drug sentencing in Arizona. You know a lot on this show we sort of say, wow, this city is a really bad, or this state’s really bad to kind of give a sense of significance. But if everything’s the worst then nothing is the worst, right? But when it comes to sentencing for drugs, Arizona truly is top tier or bottom tier depending on how you look at it. I want to talk about the general approach to drug incarceration as a solution to drug addiction, which you say is a failed strategy in your report, which for the purposes of this show, which we sort of taking as self evidently true. Can you talk about why it’s a failed strategy and what makes Arizona similar to other states and what kind of sets them apart?

Caroline Isaacs: Of course. So obviously we’ve known for literally decades now what actually works in terms of correcting behavior. And there’s a broad consensus that drug addiction is public health crisis. And when you treat it as such, you get better results than criminalizing. So essentially the bottom line is you can’t incarcerate, you can’t punish addiction out of people. It is a disease that needs to be treated. You don’t punish people for having cancer. You don’t punish people for having high blood pressure, even though perhaps their behavior has contributed to that in terms of what they eat or their lifestyle. But we don’t punish that cause that doesn’t work. So we’ve known this in this country for years and many other states are now embracing that knowledge and catching their policies up to reflect this consensus. In Arizona, which as you rightly state, is always a very special place.

Adam: Indeed.

Caroline Isaacs: We kind of have this ‘don’t bother me with the facts’ approach from our leadership at the state level. So policy decisions are continuing to be made based on emotion, based on ideology, based on what they think voters want to see rather than effective policy approaches.

Adam: So there’s some statistics here which I want to run by. First off, you say that, your report makes clear that any amount of drugs, even residue can result in a charge of possession and that the sale of drugs, regardless of the amount is an automatic class two felony, which is the same category as manslaughter, aggravated assault, armed robbery and kidnapping. You write quote, “Drug crimes comprise the largest category of offense (21.8%) for which people are incarcerated in the Arizona state prison system. For women, the percentage is even higher (32%).” There’s obviously been a trend in recent years to begin to decarcerate or to sort of decriminalize drugs. Colorado, Washington DC, California, even Texas recently. Where does Arizona stand, as of May 2019, as a part of this national trend? Is there any traction in terms of getting rid of some of these more cartoonishly evil sentencing practices?

Caroline Isaacs: There certainly is and it’s a long time coming. Obviously we’re way behind the curve on this as usual. So most other states have realized this is not a liberal issue or you know, sort of a bleeding heart thing, that it’s about effectiveness, it’s about cost savings. So it’s really been embraced by conservatives in other states as well as saying, you know, we ‘want to do what works and spend our money effectively.’ So if you look at national statistics in terms of drug sentencing, for example, just the BJS, Bureau of Justice Statistics, prisoners in 2017, their state’s prisons across the country, the percentage of drug offenders is about 14.8 percent and you see the percentage for other offenses kind of balancing that out. Here actually the statistic that you quote from our report, which is several years old, is a bit outdated. Currently drug offenders comprise 24 percent of our state. So it’s actually gone up.

Adam: It’s gone up, which is again, not part of the broader trend. Yeah. So in Maricopa County, which is even unique for Arizona itself, we’ll call it the Arizona of Arizona, drug cases represent the overwhelming majority of charges at 45 percent of charges filed for drug possession. What is it about Maricopa County? This is a border state. So there’s a sort of racial component to this. I think we would be disingenuous if we didn’t mention that racial component. So can we talk about Maricopa County and obviously it has the history of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Uh, he was recently pardoned by President Trump. What is in the water there other than your kind of normal run of the mill white supremacy, what is the factors that go into this outlier punitiveness?

Caroline Isaacs: There are many. And we certainly do have this kind of frontier mentality. My image of Sheriff Joe is kind of the Yosemite Sam, you know, ‘I’m the rootinest, tootinest, pew, pew, pew’ kind of a thing. He’s literally a cartoon and that sells. We have a, you know, certainly a concentration of Republican leadership, we have a super majority governor, majority of the state legislature. And even within that, you don’t see the same sort of balance of fiscal conservatives or evangelical conservatives. It’s much more of this kind of strange libertarian stew to where it’s like, ‘well, nobody can tell us what to do. We don’t care what the facts say. We don’t care what other states are doing.’ And we also have a large population of retirees who arguably just don’t care what happens to anyone else. Their kids are out of school. If we’re spending all our money on prisons, well that’s just fine.

Adam: Yeah, sure. I mean, Sheriff Joe Arpaio is from Massachusetts, and there is sort of this snowbird effect where, and I’ve heard native Arizonans complain about this, they’re like, basically it’s a, it’s the retiring home for a specific brand of kind of old conservative. And there’s different genres of conservative and the, and the reason I asked that is because you know, you recently had Florida pass Amendment 4 which gave quote unquote “felons” or people who’ve been convicted of felonies the right to vote and what really put that over the edge was white evangelicals. There was white evangelical movements who had taken an unusual ideological line in that group from the sort of lock ‘em up and ask questions later mentality. But you say Arizona sort of even doesn’t even have that. So we did this episode on sheriffs specifically and one thing I found interesting was that there really is this, because it is mostly an elected position, there really is this bizarre kind of western mustached, toothpick chewing ethos you have to kind of sell to become elected. And I guess I see it that seems to be embodied in Arizona more specifically with this frontier mentality kind of containing immigration and all the racial baggage that takes. Can we talk about Bill Montgomery, which has been a focus of much of the reform? Uh, he’s the county attorney. How as Bill Montgomery, could we talk about him and how he has acted as a barrier?

Caroline Isaacs: Sure. Because sheriffs are local law enforcement, whereas Mr. Montgomery and some of the other county attorneys are using their platform to advocate on a statewide level and kind of presenting themselves as some sorts of experts in terms of correctional or incarceration policies. Mr. Montgomery in particular has really sought out this mantle and this role in terms of directing what is done at the state legislative level. In fact, this past session, it’s been a very interesting year because our organization is part of a statewide left/right coalition. You know, we’re working with Americans for Prosperity and the state ACLU right? And we had eleven Republicans sponsor sentencing reform legislation, which is unheard of. Suddenly these county attorneys who have just been the bulwark against any kind of reform saying ‘everything is fine, nothing to see here, prison systems working, move along.’ Suddenly they’re being questioned in a way that they never had before and it’s been amusing and frustrating to watch. So we actually had in one legislative hearing on a bill that was introduced by the speaker of the house, the Speaker said in that hearing, ‘well, I’m disappointed that this bill isn’t going forward however, Mr. Montgomery doesn’t like it,’ said this, testified in the committee and another legislator said, ‘excuse me, Mr. Speaker, are you saying that Bill Montgomery has veto power over what we do here at the state legislature?’ And the Speaker’s response was to say, ‘well, you know, I know what a marriage requires and I want to stay married.’

Adam: Okay. That’s a weird thing to-

Caroline Isaacs: Yeah. Extremely. Which led to our campaign #DivorceMontgomery because essentially this is admitting that this is a guy who really does, he is the gatekeeper, for whatever reason, if he’s got some sort of political clout, financial clout, ties to money from the party, who knows? But up until this session, he really has only had to say, ‘I don’t like it’ and the bill is dead on arrival. This year there are now a bunch of Republicans that introduced bills who are exceedingly unhappy with the outcome and are suddenly saying, ‘wait, who made you god of criminal justice?’

Adam: Yeah. Explain that for a bit because all these different reports that, the people I’ve spoken to and then, uh, AZCentral, all the websites that I’ve been reading on this, they say that he basically has an informal veto power over reform. What is his mechanism that he’s enforcing here?

Caroline Isaacs: I honestly have spent a long time really trying to understand that because county attorneys always get some deference from elected leaders. ‘Oh these guys are the experts, they’re the protectors of the public,’ etcetera. But this individual somehow really has the thumbs up, thumbs down power. And what that’s about I think is an interesting question. There’s some that speculate that the power behind him is an individual by the name of Steve Twist.

Adam: Okay, let’s talk about Steve Twist. Now we have a puppet master this is getting sexy. Go ahead.

Caroline Isaacs: Oh, let me tell ya, it gets better. Mr. Twist is a very powerful individual. He has lobbied for the NRA. He is currently working for like a huge food conglomerate, of all things, but he also has his own victim’s rights organization and victims services organization, which we know, one of the things that sort of props up county attorneys is they’re claiming this mantle of protecting the vulnerable victims. One of the things that people have been pushing back against Mr. Montgomery is that he seems to protect some victims more than others and is not prosecuting say those individuals who defaced a mosque in Maricopa County or the sexual harassment occurring in his own office. So there’s a little more pushback on that. But Mr. Twist now is basically a high level advisor to many in Arizona. His children, his sons are also very politically embedded in the state of Arizona. So one of his sons was an advisor to our governor and is now working for the RNC. And so there are those that will speculate he is someone who can turn on the tap of dark money for Republican candidates in Arizona.

Adam: Yeah. One figure from 2014 puts his funding at around $1 million for Montgomery, which is a lot for a county attorney race.

Caroline Isaacs: Yeah. Who rarely faces opposition to begin with.

Adam: Right. Okay, so let’s talk about that opposition. You are one of, of course, several groups that are working for some kind of reform that’s being stopped by Montgomery. Moving forward to 2020, in the upcoming years, can we talk about what the strategy is to move the needle here? What are activists on the ground in Arizona doing to push this forward in spite of these forces?

Caroline Isaacs: One of the great developments of the last few years is the embrace of criminal justice reform nationally has finally started to trickle down to Arizona in terms of investment from foundations, in organizing on the ground, more groups kind of developing here to address some of these issues, community based organizations, really taking a look at the impact of criminal justice on the communities in which they organize and saying, ‘yeah, we gotta do something about this.’ So there are a number of groups working specifically on prosecutorial accountability issues and I suspect will be engaged in the primary process and everything else in Arizona on that sort of electoral basis. And as I mentioned, the incredible groundwork that was done this year, this session on sentencing reform, particularly by a much larger group of Republicans in the House and Senate tells me that they’re not content with this outcome and that there will be I think an even greater push next session to say, ‘okay, you know, the time has long since come for this and we really need to just take the plunge.’ I think there’s that developing political will.

Adam: And at a certain point it gets sort of embarrassing if you’re so behind everywhere else.

Caroline Isaacs: Well, you know, Arizona! No shame.

Adam: You would think that matters but Arizona still doesn’t have Daylight Savings Time. So. I should disclose that um, which by the way, totally right on.

Caroline Isaacs: Yeah. Tell us what time it is.

Adam: Yeah, I should disclose that uh, The Justice Collaborative, which The Appeal is a part of, although it is editorially independent, is working with groups on that election. So I need to disclose that so people don’t think I’m totally not conflicted here. So let’s, so let’s talk about the kind of broader ideology behind your groups and others. I know you mentioned for example, that um, from a purely empirical standpoint, incarceration does not cure or even help addiction in that the recidivism for these punitive, harsh sentences, prison sentences show this to be true. Can we talk about from an empirical standpoint, the data that’s come out recently and others, there’ve been a couple of studies in the last couple of years that have shown that these harsh sentences actually do nothing to prevent use?

Caroline Isaacs: Certainly not. In fact, there’s, there’s evidence that they do more to actually make people’s outcome on reentry worse. There are a lot of things that contribute to that, but if you think about it, it’s probably the least efficient or effective way to deal with addiction. So instead of just investing in, oh say, drug treatment on demand in the community where you wouldn’t have to be on a waiting list you actually could get the help you need and could afford it the minute that you decide that you are ready to change. If we invested in that, we would not have the size of criminal justice system that we have. Period. So what we’re seeing is instead this ridiculous process whereby we’re going to send someone through the criminal punishment system, settle them with a felony conviction that will make them virtually unhouseable and unemployable for the rest of their lives, traumatize them further by putting them in a dangerous, chaotic, inhumane environment and then offer them help.

Adam: Right. Yeah. Okay. I think that’s a good place to stop. This was very enlightening, I got to spend some time in Arizona last week and got to hear from a lot of the people there and a lot of good people are trying to do good work, but it’s, it’s hard. It’s a very entrenched system. So it’s good to hear from people that are actually doing things. So I really appreciate you coming on.

Caroline Isaacs: Thank you so much for looking into this and for, you know, highlighting these issues. It’s very important.

Adam: Thank you to our guest Caroline Isaacs. This has been The Appeal podcast. Remember, you can always follow us at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter pages and as always you can subscribe and rate us on iTunes. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Cassi Feldman. I’m your host Adam Johnson. We’ll see you next week.