Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall was first elected to office in 1996. In that time we have seen an explosion in the population of the Pima County jail, a growth even larger than what took place under Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County.
According to figures collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent nonprofit national research and policy organization, between 1970 and 2014 the Maricopa County Jail incarceration rate grew by 58% per 100,000 residents, while the Pima County Jail incarceration rate exploded by 210%. In 2014, the last year for which comprehensive numbers are available, Pima County actually had more people being held in its jail per 100,000 residents, 320, than Maricopa County had per 100,000 of its residents, 301.
The average length of a jail stay in Pima County has also increased dramatically, from 14 days in 1996 when Ms. LaWall was first elected to 23 days in 2014.
This vast increase in incarceration rates would be more comprehensible if Pima County was experiencing a historic crime wave, but according to Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, our state is enjoying record low crime rates. In an article they co-wrote and published in The Arizona Republic in December, 2015, Ms. LaWall and Mr. Montgomery told the people of Arizona that “Arizona crime rates [had fallen] to 40 – 50 year lows,” that violent crime was at its lowest level since 1971 and property crime at its lowest level since 1963, and that “the big news in Arizona is that we are outpacing the national decline [in crime] by a significant margin.”
At the same time as crime is falling, so are the number of people arrested. The Arizona Department of Public Safety reports that, from 2002 – 2013, the number of people arrested in Pima County fell by 30% – this at a time when Pima County’s population increased by 12%.
Our criminal justice system is not created and maintained by a deus ex machina. Real people decide every day who goes to jail and how long they stay there for. Every day the Pima County Attorney decides who to recommend bail for, who to try and hold in jail with very high or no bail, and what kinds of mandatory jail terms to offer in plea agreements. Until we start holding them accountable, until we start demanding answers for why we have exploding incarceration rates at a time of historically low crime and arrest rates, the plague of mass incarceration and the erosion of our civil liberties will only worsen.
– Joel Feinman