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Criminal Justice Committee Led By Embattled Arizona Rep. David Stringer Dissolved

Rep. David Stringer
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
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David Stringer.

Two Arizona representatives are calling for the continuation of a bipartisan criminal justice committee that was slated to study possible legislative reforms

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said in a statement Thursday he was dissolving the committee because it was chaired by Rep. David Stringer. Stringer is facing a backlash for recent comments he made about immigration.

“Ultimately, Rep. Stringer’s future in the Legislature will be up to him and the voters of District 1,” Mesnard wrote. “In the meantime, I am dissolving the Ad Hoc Study Committee on Criminal Justice Reform, which Representative Stringer had been chairing.”

Mesnard said that while he recognized bipartisan interest in criminal justice reform, “to avoid compromising the issue, future work will not take place in the form of this committee.”

A spokesman for Mesnard, Matt Specht, said, “Speaker Mesnard wanted to create a very clear separation between the issue and Rep. Stringer, given the controversy and distraction his comments have created.”

On Friday, Democratic Reps. Tony Navarrete and Kirsten Engel called for the committee to continue.

In a statement, Engel called Stringer’s remarks “deeply offensive,” but argued that Mesnard’s response “makes no sense. The committee’s work — revising Arizona’s Truth in Sentencing law to reflect national prison-sentencing norms, defelonizing simple drug possession, and revising Arizona’s criminal record set-aside statute to prevent stigmatization of persons with certain nonviolent criminal records — is long overdue and should be allowed to continue, with or without its original chairperson.”

Reached by phone Friday, Navarette said he wants to continue the conversation on criminal justice reform.

“Despite what the speaker has said about dismantling the entire committee, we believe it’s still important for stakeholders and families and advocacy groups and legal groups and the courts to still have a space where we can discuss these issues,” Navarrete said.

“We need to talk about defelonizing certain drugs, especially with so many drug epidemics. We’re locking so many people up just because they have an addiction.”

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) said dissolving the legislative committee was the wrong move.

“Substantive criminal justice reform would be, perhaps, the most meaningful thing the state of Arizona could do to demonstrate a commitment to racial equality and fairness,” said Caroline Isaacs, AFSC director.

“There could be no greater rebuke of Representative Stringer’s hateful and divisive words than to take action to reform the laws, structures, and institutions that unfairly impact people of color in Arizona every single day.”

AFSC was one of several community groups that were invited to take part in the work of the criminal justice committee.

Navarette said he plans on talking with the rest of the stakeholders and legislators appointed to the committee about continuing in an unofficial capacity.

Specht said they would be able to do so and did not need Mesnard’s permission.

“A robust stakeholder process can be just as effective as an ad hoc committee,” he said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to correct the spelling of Matt Specht's name.

Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.