Mass incarceration…it just feels right

Collecting accurate data on the criminal justice system is the foundation of real reform, without which all other efforts are in vain. Any doctor can explain the simple reason for this; you cannot cure a disease until you properly diagnose it. Other states are already heeding this lesson. In 2018 Florida passed SB 1392, which requires all counties in the state to regularly and publicly report who is going to jail and prison, for what, and for how long. This past Wednesday it looked like Arizona was taking a step down a similarly wise path, when the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission (ACJC) held a hearing to help identify data lawmakers and advocates can use to “[provide] a reliable foundation for discussions on Arizona’s criminal justice system.”

But Arizona being Arizona, things could not be that sensible nor that simple. Yavapai County Attorney and ACJC Chairperson Sheila Polk began the meeting with a PowerPoint that started out with this slide.

Sheila Polk powerpoint

Not exactly confidence-inspiring. According the Arizona News Service’s Yellow Sheet Report, Ms. Polk told the meeting that not all data is worth studying.

The amount of data feels overwhelming to me,” she said. “Maybe there is other data the state should be collecting,” she added, but “do we really want that data? Do we need more?”

It is really no surprise Ms. Polk and the ACJC began a meeting ostensibly about data-driven criminal justice reform efforts with a colloquy questioning and undermining the validity of such efforts. The Commission is comprised of nineteen members, including four elected chief prosecutors, seven sheriffs and chiefs of police, the head of the Arizona Department of Corrections, and zero defense attorneys, zero formerly system-involved people or their families, and zero community advocates. This pro-law enforcement composition was established by A.R.S. § 41-2404, and efforts to change the law and include more diverse representation on the ACJC have been repeatedly thwarted by Arizona’s county attorneys, most recently Bill Montgomery before he became an AZ Supreme Court Justice and the subject of an ethics complaint for allegedly covering up misconduct in the Maricopa County Attorney’s death penalty unit. No big whoop.

Ms. Polk has a vested interest in delegitimizing data-driven efforts to reform Arizona’s criminal justice system; she knows better than anyone how suspect data can be wielded to oppose a reform agenda. The Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council (APAAC) – which also happens to be chaired by Ms. Polk – routinely employs a report it commissioned to “prove” Arizona does not have a mass incarceration problem, and the only people in our prisons are violent and repeat offenders. This is despite the fact the report’s author is an alleged academic fraud and recipient of RICO money from Bill Montgomery, and the fact the report itself has been thoroughly debunked by Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

As Ms. Polk and the ACJC’s presentation drew to a close Wednesday, they showed this slide.

Sheila Polk PP

The idea that criminal justice reform is thwarted by too much information would be laughable, if it didn’t have such tragic consequences. Despite Ms. Polk’s feelings, the truth is Arizona does not have nearly enough publicly available, well-organized data on what is going on in our courtrooms and prisons. We absolutely and without a shadow of a doubt need more data to accurately guide reform efforts and write laws that make sense. Ms. Polk might feel like Arizona should have the 4th highest incarceration rate per capita in the world – she might suppose this is making our communities safer, and our families more secure, but Arizona taxpayers are not spending billions of dollars per year on the criminal justice system under the assurance the system feels like it’s working.

With this in mind, let us close with another saying from Mr. Twain.

Mark Twain Sheila Polk

– Joel Feinman