The Arizona Ground Game hosts community forums every month in hopes of educating our community on controversial issues that can become complicated once you dive into the details. The group wants to see citizens engaged and informed once midterm elections come around this November.
On Tuesday evening, TAGG brought Joel Feinman, head of the Pima County Public Defender’s office and adjunct professor in political science at the University of Arizona, to Pueblo High School’s Little Theater to talk about the causes of and solutions to mass incarceration.
He gave a half-hour presentation before taking questions from the audience. Here’s a recap of what was covered at the forum:
1. Plea agreements
- Over 90 percent of criminal cases tried in America are resolved by plea agreements, meaning that over 90 percent of defendants don’t see their cases go to a trial.
- On one hand, it would take the criminal justice system an eternity to process cases if they were all tried by juries, but on the other hand, plea agreements often force defendants into impossible situations.
- Feinman said, “Our entire justice system becomes a contest between the most powerful person in the room, the prosecutor, and the least powerful person in the room, the criminal defendant.”
- Mandatory minimum sentences also give power to plea agreements. In 2013, 97 percent of all cases in the federal criminal justice system were resolved by plea agreements. In 2012, the average sentence for federal narcotics crimes resolved by plea agreement was five years. The average sentence for the same crimes that went to trial was 16 years.
2. The power of your local prosecutor
- Feinman said prosecutors are the most powerful person in the criminal justice system. Why? “Because the prosecutor has complete discretion to charge whomever they want with whatever they want, and offer whatever plea to whatever crime they see fit, as long as they can get a grand jury to indict.”
- His example: A defendant who hit and killed someone while driving a car. The prosecutor can choose to charge that person with a misdemeanor for reckless driving, or capital murder. No one can overrule that decision. The prosecutor could offer a plea agreement for life in prison, or six months in county jail. No one can overrule that decision.
- Feinman said the prosecutors are what drives the criminal justice system, they are who decides who is in prison, and what sentence they are in prison for.
- In 1866, the 13th Amendment was passed and slavery was abolished. Vagrancy laws were created to target and imprison recently-freed slaves who had no place to call home. This was the beginning of racial disparity in the criminal justice system.
- Today, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its black population than South Africa did under apartheid.
- White men have a 1 in 17 chance of ending up in prison during their lifetime. Black men have a 1 in 3 chance. White women have a 1 in 111 chance, black women have a 1 in 18 chance.
- All races sell and use drugs at roughly the same rate, white men sell drugs at a slightly higher rate than any other gender or ethnicity. Feinman said that the idea that this is a “black problem” or an “inner city problem” is completely disproven by this evidence. He said drugs are a human problem, not a racial problem.
- For the last 14 years, the Pima County attorney has prosecuted more narcotics offenses than any other offense. In FY 2017, 36 percent of the cases that the Pima County attorney prosecuted were narcotics offenses, only 6 percent were rape and sexual assault.
- In Arizona prisons today, 21 percent of prisoners are there for non-violent narcotics crimes and only 1.4 percent are there for rape and sexual assault.
- Feinman said prosecutors should be more focused on going after all sexual violence offenders, not just the ones who are high profile.
- 46 percent of children who have a parent in prison experience frequent socio-economic hardship, compared to 24 percent of children who don’t have a parent in prison.
- 36 percent of children who have a parent in prison are a victim or a witness to domestic abuse, compared to 5 percent of children who don’t have a parent in prison.
- 57 percent of children who have a parent in prison live with someone who has a substance abuse problem, compared to 7 percent of children who don’t have a parent in prison.
- In 2015, Arizona spent $3,573 per K-12 student and $23,441 per inmate.
- The federal government funds local police forces to prosecute drug offenders as part of the ongoing war on drugs.
- Prisons are the #1 generator of jobs in certain jurisdictions. Feinman said Florence, Arizona would not exist if not for the business of prisons.
- Feinman says that Arizona and the majority of the United States is red because of mass incarceration. In 2016, 221,000 Arizonans could not vote because of a criminal conviction. This is 4.25 percent of the state population. President Trump won by only 3.5 percent in Arizona.
- He said it's extremely hard to get your civil rights restored after being convicted of a crime. Pima County holds frequent rights restoration clinics for free to help those affected.
- An audience member said that probation requires that you have housing, a job and money to pay fees. But many housing complexes and jobs don’t accept registered felons. Feinman said we need legislators who will make laws that don’t allow discrimination based on criminal records.
- Prison population is counted in the US Census, but felons can’t vote.
- You can vote the prosecutors who do nothing to address mass incarceration out of office.
- Feinman made a Death Star reference: The weakness in the system’s plan is precisely the architectural detail that they use to make it so formidable, the power of the prosecutor. No one can overrule what the prosecutor decides. That very strength is also the core weakness of the system. Because that prosecutor has total discretion, you change the prosecutor, you change the system.