The Ghosts of Prop. 204

The ghosts of Prop 204 4

“And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people, maybe more
people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening
people writing songs that voices never share, and no one dared
disturb the sound of silence.” – Paul Simon

Last November, Tucson voters were asked to consider Proposition 204. Also known as “Strong Start Tucson,” Prop. 204 would have increased the Tucson city sales tax by one half-cent, and generated an estimated $50 million a year to pay for 8,000 children to attend high-quality preschool. The proposal was roundly condemned by a large, bi-partisan group that included Jim Click, the Koch brothers-backed Americans For Prosperity, the Mayor and almost ever City Council person, and a large portion of our Democratic state legislative caucus. When voters and activists asked the Democrats who opposed Prop. 204 why they were so dead-set against a liberal no-brainer like expanded early childhood education, the most common arguments were that Prop. 204 was sloppily written and didn’t go far enough in advancing the goal of educating more of our children. During the run-up to the November 7 election, social media resounded with guarantees from Democratic opponents that, if we voted “no,” our judiciousness would be rewarded with a much better early education proposal. Well, it is going on six months since Prop. 204 was defeated by a margin of 33% to 66%, and our reward so far has been bupkis.

There are some good souls out there; brave and honest elected officials who have at least tried to get something done. This legislative session, a group of Democratic state legislators introduced HB 2363, which would establish an early literacy grant program to improve reading skills for prekindergarten, kindergarten, and elementary school students. LD 10 Democratic State Representative Kirsten Engel introduced HB 2355, which would impose a 0.02% sales tax on soda and sweetened beverages, the entirety of which would be spent on early childhood education programming. Representative Engel’s proposal appears to be a popular one; out of 600 likely, rural 2018 general election voters polled, 59% supported the measure. And…both bills died in committee, after receiving no hearing and almost no attention or interest. (To add insult to injury, the Legislature did pass HB 2484, which essentially prohibits cities and towns from passing soda taxes like the one Representative Engel proposed.)

When it comes to our city government, which took the lead on opposing Prop. 204 among local Democrats, no one has dared disturb the postmortem silence. Tucson City Council minutes from November 8, 2017, through March 20, 2018, (11 regular meetings plus 10 study sessions) reveal not one single mention of early education has yet to darken City Hall. Nor does the Council seem to have any interest in advocating for early childhood education at the state capitol. On November 21, 2017, a mere two weeks after the demise of Prop. 204, the Council discussed Tucson’s 2018 state legislative agenda. The four priorities the Council approved by unanimous a 7-0 vote were:

1.) Defend against any and all cuts to State-shared revenues and other State funds
dedicated to local governments.
2.) Protect and enhance local authority and decision making.
3.) Support the ability of cities to utilize strong economic development tools and increase infrastructure investment and public safety.
4.) Support strong and sustainable water management policies and practices.

Interestingly, the twelfth sub-section of priority #3 is, “Support sufficient State of Arizona funding of K-12, Community College, and University level education without threatening SSR or other funding streams currently designated to support local governments.” Even here, the silence of the Council on new early education programs is deafening.

Finally, during his annual State of the City speech on March 9, the Mayor of Tucson added a cherry of dismissal to the sundae of early education disinterest our city leaders are serving to voters who took their “we promise we will do better than Prop. 204” assurances to heart. The speech was chock full of civic boosterism, which we cannot blame the Mayor for, as that is what such speeches are all about. However, the Mayor did not even bother to pay lip service to supporting an early childhood education program. He didn’t propose to create a study group or recommend a task force – he studiously maintained the silence that has dominated the issue since last November.

Two weeks before the election, I wrote on this blog,

Come 2018, if Prop. 204 fails then all local Democrats should look forward to our City Council and state legislative caucus telling us precisely what the right answer is. If they do not, if the sound of education reform in city hall and the state capitol is the deafening sound of silence…Well, at least we know the value our elected officials place on telling us the truth, and bettering our children’s futures.

Sometimes it really sucks to be right.

– Joel Feinman

Pima County Residents Owe $126 Million For Mass Incarceration

Taxing away mass incarceration

The staggering costs of mass incarceration

Mass incarceration costs Arizona taxpayers money – a lot of money. According to a comprehensive new report published by the American Friends Service Committee, the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) annual budget is now over $1 billion, and makes up 11% of the state’s general fund. That’s an increase of 28.4% over ten years, during which time Arizona’s spending on schools, economic security, and even public safety has decreased. Arizona ranks fourth highest among all 50 states in the percentage of total general fund expenditures on corrections.

Arizona budget spending changes

All Arizona taxpayers pay for DOC, but not all Arizonans make the decisions that drive mass incarceration. On the contrary those decisions rest with just fifteen prosecutors, elected at the county level who have no term limits, and some of whom have held office for decades. They have near total discretion to ease or aggravate the problem of mass incarceration in Arizona. But neither they nor even their voters pay much of the costs of the decisions they make – everybody else does. It is a classic example of the economic theory of negative externalities, meaning the person responsible for a particular action does not bear the cost of that action. Much like nuclear waste, the $1 billion expense of mass incarceration in Arizona harms us all, but it is generated by a very few.

Making mass incarcerators pay their way

Last year Michael McLaughlin, an economic researcher out of Washington University in St. Louis, proposed an intriguing solution to the negative externality problem of mass incarceration. McLaughlin’s paper, “Using a Pigouvian Tax to Reduce Incarceration,” argues that,

Local actors have considerable discretion whether to conduct a search, make an arrest, charge a person with a crime, classify a crime as a misdemeanor or felony, or issue a lengthy prison sentence…One way to correct this negative externality is with a Pigouvian tax. Charging local governments on a per-prisoner basis for the cost of incarceration could induce local actors to internalize the externality and reduce the number of prison admissions.”

A “Pigouvian tax,” named after English economist Arthur Pigou, is just a fancy way of describing a local tax that would apply to the party that generates negative externalities, and would require them to pay the costs of those externalities. An example would be taxing industrial polluters the cost of cleaning up pollution and treating medical issues it causes.

According to DOC, as of February 2017, 12.6% of Arizona prisoners were from Pima County.

Feb 2017 DOC county numbers

If we were to fund the $1 billion Arizona DOC budget with a Pigouvian tax, Pima County residents would pay an additional $126 million in county taxes.

I suspect that if a $126 million tax increase proposal came before the Pima County Board of Supervisors, it would be deeply unpopular. However that should not stop us from considering the justice of McLaughlin’s proposal. Why shouldn’t the people who drive mass incarceration be forced to pay for it, and forced to justify their policies when the economic fallout hits the taxpayers who elected them? Two of the fundamental tenets of conservative government are personal responsibility and paying your own way. Our elected officials, and indeed ourselves, should assume the responsibility of paying for the policies we advocate for. Perhaps it is only when we are required to pay for mass incarceration out of our own pockets that we will demand its end, loudly and permanently.

– Joel Feinman

Pima Sheriff’s Home Detention Program protects & saves taxpayers $450,000

Pima County home detention program

For almost two years, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department has been at the forefront of implementing a home detention program for low-level, non-violent offenders that has saved Pima County taxpayers $450,000 and counting.

422 enrollees; 0 escape attempts

Created in April, 2015, by India Davis and Corrections Lieutenant Elsa Navarro, the Sheriff’s Home Detention Program originally only applied to people convicted of misdemeanor DUIs. Recently the program has expanded to include people convicted of other misdemeanors and some low-level, non-dangerous felonies who have been sentenced to jail time, although alcohol-related convictions still compose the majority of the program. For years such people have been allowed out of jail during the day to go to work, but have been required to return to the jail each night as part of a program known as “work release” or “work furlough.” The Home Detention Program allows these people to spend nights in their home, while equipping them with a GPS ankle bracelet that constantly tracks their location. The GPS system is accurate to within 10 feet, and each bracelet emits a ping every 5 minutes to constantly inform the jail that enrollees are where they are supposed to be. The system can be adjusted to ping every 60 seconds if necessary, and the jail automatically gets an alarm if an enrollee attempts to tamper with the monitor or ventures within 5 miles of Pima County limits, a train station, airport, or any other exclusion zone that the jail can set, such as a victim’s house. 422 people have enrolled in the Home Detention Program since its inception, and there has not been a single attempt to escape or remove a GPS monitor. As part of the vetting process each enrollee is required to sign a Notice of Intent to Prosecute, informing them that any escape attempt will be prosecuted as a class 5 felony, punishable by up to two years in prison.

“A very stringent vetting process”

“We are very selective about who gets into the program,” interim Corrections Chief Sean Stewart told The Pima Liberator. “There is a very stringent vetting process, and we don’t want to set anyone up for failure.” As part of that process all potential enrollees are required to fill out an Inmate Interview sheet, where they must disclose all of their residence information, work information, vehicle information, and criminal history. They are also required to sign an Inmate Agreement that includes the following provisions:

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Home Detention Program inmate agreement provisions

Even after people are enrolled in the program and equipped with a GPS monitor, they are still required to report to the jail in person once a week for alcohol and drug testing.

Keeping the community safer

A key concern with work furlough and work release programs is that law enforcement cannot know for sure if a person is actually going to work when they are released from jail during the day. In one instance a person on furlough was released to go work, and jail personnel did not hear from them until they received a call from Border Patrol telling them that the same person was caught coming back from Mexico while attempting to smuggle a load of drugs in to the U.S. “Home detention is much safer for the community than work furlough or work release,” said Captain Stewart. “In this program the jail knows where you are at all times, and tells you where you can and cannot go.” The Home Detention Program is staffed by 5 Sheriff’s Sergeants who log into the system daily to make sure all enrollees are where they are supposed to be – a fail-safe backup to the system’s built-in, automatic notification software. One additional Pima County Sheriff’s Sergeant has the full-time assignment to monitor and evaluate all enrollees. According to Captain Stewart, Lieutenant Navarro, and Captain Darin Stephens – three corrections officers who oversee the Home Detention Program – they would like to see the program expanded to included people in jail awaiting trial. “The average Pima County jail stay is 10 days. No one should be in jail for 10 days; they should either be in jail until their trial or home,” said Captain Stewart. If someone has a job and is not a threat to their community “they should be allowed to keep working, support their kids, and pay their taxes.”

Effective and fiscally responsible law enforcement

daily-costs

Daily costs per inmate

Funding for both the Home Detention Program and the Pima County Jail comes from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department budget, which comes from the county general fund in the form of property tax revenue. The Pima County Jail costs taxpayers $89 per inmate per day, compared to the Home Detention Program which costs only $11 per inmate per day for GPS ankle monitoring, and $15 per inmate per day for GPS and alcohol monitoring. Thus the Home Detention Program costs taxpayers almost 500% less than jail time, which has translated to a saving of $450,000 in taxpayer money since the Program was created in 2015.

The Pima County Sheriff’s Home Detention Program is exactly the kind of forward-thinking, effective, and fiscally responsible law enforcement that we should be promoting and supporting. According to Captain Stewart, the Home Detention Program can only continue to succeed with judicial and community buy-in. Our prosecutors and judges need to make more people eligible for home detention. The only practical limit to the potential size of the program is the number of people in Pima County Jail – both awaiting trial and serving a sentence – who are not a danger to the community, and who should be out of jail working and contributing to society. For every tax dollar we spend on GPS home detention we save exponentially more dollars by not locking people up. We also increase the employment rate, decrease the number of people who need public assistance when they get out of jail, and prevent families from being torn apart by needless and unjust incarceration policies.

– Joel Feinman

Pima County Attorney RICO funds disappear then reappear, then spent on advertising & promotional items

Pima County Attorney RICO funds

A close analysis of public documents reveals serious questions about how the Pima County Attorney accounts for and spends RICO funds.

Under Arizona law “racketeering” is defined as a laundry list of criminal acts that are committed for financial gain. If the police seize a person’s property whom they suspect of committing a racketeering (or RICO) offense, that property can be forfeited and auctioned off, even if the person is never actually convicted of a crime. That is, innocent people who have never been suspected of committing a crime can – and do – lose their property to RICO forfeiture.

Recently Pima County’s RICO procedures were subject to FBI scrutiny, and in October the second in command of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department resigned after being indicted by the Department of Justice for misusing RICO funds.

What has been subject to far less scrutiny is the role the Pima County Attorney plays in determining how RICO money is spent. Under Arizona law, County Attorneys may distribute the RICO funds allocated to their county to whichever agencies they see fit. Though RICO laws were first written with the intention to fund gang, crime, and substance abuse prevention programs, in FY2015-2016 County Attorney LaWall only allocated 0.08% of available funds to these efforts.

RICO laws and forfeiture proceedings generate considerable amounts of money every year. According to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, which was created in 1982 by the Arizona legislature to monitor and report on RICO spending, the Pima County Attorney’s master RICO account contained more than $12.6 million at the beginning of fiscal year 2015 – 2016. Out of this sum, the County Attorney chose to give the Pima County Sheriff Department’s  “Financial Services Unit” more money than any other law enforcement agency received – $533,000.

Per the Sheriff’s Department, that is the unit responsible for budgeting and finance, not operations or investigations. To all other Sheriff’s Department units, Ms. LaWall allocated $0, while eight other Pima County law enforcement agencies – including the Pasqua Yaqui and Tohono O’odham Police Departments – also received $0. The Pima County Attorney did see fit to spend the second-largest sum of RICO dollars on her own office – $491,278.

(opening the below images in a new tab will magnify them and make them easier to read)

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Significantly, at a time when both law enforcement officers and line prosecutors are clamoring for long-delayed raises, former Sheriff Chris Nanos and current County Attorney Barbara LaWall simply banked hundreds of thousands of RICO dollars. At the end of FY2015 – 2016 Ms. LaWall chose to bank more than $500,000, instead of spending that money on crime prevention.

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This practice is not necessarily the norm in Arizona. In FY2015 – 2016, the Maricopa County Attorney spent every cent of their RICO money.

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Examining the Pima County Attorney’s RICO accounts over the last sixteen years reveals bigger problems than end-of-the-year surpluses. Between June 30 and July 1, 2005, almost $60,000 seems to have disappeared from the books. And while public documents reveal that the County Attorney had $438,524 in its account on June 30, 2011, the office reported that it didn’t have any money at all in its account on July 1, 2011. Indeed, according to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, the Pima County Attorney did not have one cent of RICO money from July 1, 2011, until January 1, 2012, when they suddenly reported a positive balance of $622,467.

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Finally, public databases reveal idiosyncrasies in the way Ms. LaWall spends RICO funds. Per the Arizona State Government’s General Accounting Office, in fiscal year 2015 – 2016 the County Attorney spent $4.6 million in RICO Special Revenue funds. This money went to expenses as varied as parking subsidies, advertising, and life insurance. Almost $13,000 went to “promotional items,” $14,000 went to “vacation payouts,” and $1.277 million was spent on “other miscellaneous charges.” The Pima County Attorney has never publicly defined “miscellaneous,” nor explained why such an opaque line item consumes such a large portion of the fund.

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These documents make clear the critical need for a comprehensive audit of how the Pima County Attorney accounts for and spends RICO funds, a need made even more pressing by the recent FBI and Justice Department investigations into the matter. Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall is the sole distributor of county RICO funds, and as such must be held accountable for their use. It is important to remember that the original intention of the RICO laws was to fund gang, crime, and substance abuse prevention programs. While spending $13,000 on promotional items and $1.2 million on “miscellaneous charges” may not be prohibited by law, the Pima County Attorney’s primary responsibilities are to administer justice and prevent crime. Ms. LaWall has the capacity to use RICO funds to fulfill these responsibilities for the residents of Pima County, but there are troubling signs that justice is not being served as well as we need and deserve.

– Joel Feinman

New study finds 39% of American prisoners do not belong behind bars

Mass incarceration in Arizona

Per the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, 39% of the 1.46 million Americans currently locked away in state and federal prisons – about 576,000 people – are being incarcerated with little public safety rationale.

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According to the study, these 576,000 prisoners could be more appropriately sentenced to an alternative to prison or a shorter prison stay, with limited impact on public safety. Releasing these people from prison would save taxpayers $20 billion per year, and almost $200 billion over 10 years: enough money to employ 270,000 new police officers, or 360,000 probation officers, or 327,000 school teachers. Among the study’s other findings:

  • Alternatives to prison are likely to be more effective sentences than incarceration for about 364,000 lower-level offenders – 25% of the current U.S. prison population. Researchers have shown that prison does little to rehabilitate these kinds of offenders, and that incarceration often increases recidivism in such cases.
  • 212,000 prisoners – 14% of the total prison population – have already served sufficiently long prison terms and could be released within the next year with little risk to public safety.
  • 79% of U.S. prisoners suffer from either drug addiction or mental illness, and 40% suffer from both. Alternative interventions such as treatment would be more effective sanctions for many of these people.

– Joel Feinman

Taxpayers forced to fund County Attorney’s re-election campaign through shrinking Bad Check Program

Pima County Attorney bad check program

You have seen them on billboards, on cash registers, and in the windows of local businesses. Their presence is ubiquitous in our community. Signs and stickers warning consumers that writing bad checks is a crime and featuring, in large full-color print, the name and badge of Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall.

For years Ms. LaWall has touted her Bad Check program as “the #1 in the nation.” What has gone unmentioned – besides the wisdom and efficacy of it being the 21st Century and our County Attorney not supplementing a bad check program with a credit card fraud and electronic ID theft program – is just how much money the Bad Check program costs, what exactly that money is being used for, and how many bad checks the Pima County Attorney’s Office (PCAO) actually prosecutes.

First a word on the program’s efficacy. According to Pima County’s budgets for FY2015/2016 and FY2016/2017, the number of bad checks that county businesses have submitted to the Pima County Attorney has dropped exponentially over the last few years. In FY2013/2014 the PCAO received 1,362 bad checks. The County Attorney herself estimated that this number would plummet to 640 by the very next fiscal year, and planned to receive only 320 bad checks by FY2015/2016.

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However even the PCAO’s own estimates proved to be too low. The Office received only 513 bad checks in FY2014/2015 (not 640), and revised its planning downward from receiving 320 bad checks in FY2015/2016 to receiving 240 instead. In FY2016/2017, the County Attorney plans on receiving only 132 bad checks. If current trends continue, the PCAO will receive less than 100 bad checks by FY2017/2018

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Given the ever-smaller number of bad checks that the County Attorney receives in the 21st Century, it is worth asking how and when Ms. LaWall chooses to promote the program, and how much money her promotions cost Pima County taxpayers.

In February 2016, six months before her first contested primary election in 20 years, Ms. LaWall sent a package to 4,023 local businesses. The package included a Bad Check sticker and a large Bad Check placard, along with a letter from Ms. LaWall to business owners in which she asked them to place her promotion material “prominently in your place of business.”

screen-shot-2016-11-19-at-7-38-57-amThis postage alone for these packages cost taxpayers $5,712.66. We don’t know how much the stickers and placards cost to make, because the Pima County Attorney’s Office has stated that they did not preserve records of these purchases.

However, we do know what the expenses and revenue of the Bad Check program are. The General Accounting Office (GAO) of the State of Arizona maintains an official transparency website “that serves as a single point of reference for citizens to view information about the financial activities” of city, county, and state government agencies.

According to the GAO, in FY2015/2016 the Pima County Attorney’s Bad Check Special revenue fund brought in $45,547.45.

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But during that exact time period the exact same program had expenses of $53,784.75

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So, during the last fiscal year, the Pima County Attorney’s Bad Check Special revenue fund lost more than $8,000 at a time when Ms. LaWall spent more than $5,000 of her agency’s money – and almost certainly a whole lot more – to help ensure that her name and badge prominently appeared in more than 4,000 businesses across Pima County. Ms. LaWall spent this money to promote a program that collects geometrically fewer bad checks every year, and her taxpayer-funded promotion just happened to occur when Ms. LaWall was facing her first contested primary election in 20 years.

Perhaps there is an innocent explanation. Perhaps the money to pay for the Bad Check promotion came from a different source of revenue, such as general fund money that the Board of Supervisors budgets to the County Attorney’s Office each fiscal year. But if this is the case, why did Ms. LaWall spend taxpayer money from the general fund to advertise herself and her Bad Check program in an election year, at a time when that program is shrinking and losing large amounts of money? At the very least we should be asking why this program is hemorrhaging money from its special fund if, as Ms. LaWall claims, it is the “number one” bad check program in the country.

Answers to these questions would help restore faith in the Bad Check Program, and reassure taxpayers that revenue from that program – which is $8,000 less than expenses – wasn’t used for illegal electioneering.

– Joel Feinman