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Reform Leader: Maricopa County Attorney Position On Inmates Is 'Tone Deaf'

The Show spoke with Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel on during its May 4

Adel had written an op-ed in the Arizona Republic criticizing some organizations who are advocating for a release of more inmates during the current pandemic for “exploiting a public health emergency to forward a political agenda.”

Not all share Adel's position, however.

The Show talked with Caroline Isaacs, the Arizona director of the American Friends Service Committee, who called Adel's op-ed "tone deaf."

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Yesterday on The Show, we heard from Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel. She'd written an op-ed for the Arizona Republic criticizing some organizations who are advocating for a release of more prisoners during the current pandemic for, quote, "exploiting a public health emergency to forward a political agenda," end quote. Today in response, we hear from Caroline Isaacs. She's the Arizona director of the American Friends Service Committee. Caroline, you called Adele's op-ed "tone deaf." What exactly did you mean by that?

CAROLINE ISAACS: Well, it was disappointing, let's say. That there really... If there ever was a moment in which this kind of political aggrandizing and pointing of fingers was inappropriate, this is it. And to come after people who are advocating for the health and safety, not just of people who are incarcerated, but for the staff who work in those facilities, for the surrounding communities and for all of Arizona is a little out-of-touch.

GOLDSTEIN: What do you think the motivation is for this?

ISAACS: That's what I think is particularly saddening for me and others who've been working on this issue for a long time. We really had hoped that this new county attorney would... The sort of stranglehold of that office, of these special interests that are invested in the status quo of "let's lock them up and not ask questions," and anyone who tries to suggest that there is a better way to do justice is some kind of enemy.

GOLDSTEIN: The language that she uses in the op-ed is, is quite strong. "Exploiting a public health emergency to forward a political agenda" is how it's phrased there. Does this sound like someone that you could work with in the future? Does this sound like election year talk?

ISAACS: One thing I've learned, being an advocate for justice reform in Arizona is, I don't count anyone out. I will work with anyone who wants to have a conversation. So I understand politics, I understand election years, and I can always hope that someone in a position like county attorney of Maricopa County will recognize the tremendous power that they have in terms of sending so many people to prison in Arizona, and will maybe look to other d.a.'s and other states for examples of ways to really focus those resources on the people who actually need to be incarcerated and focus more on solving problems like drug addiction and mental illness.

GOLDSTEIN: Caroline, let's talk a bit more about that, about those who need to be incarcerated and those who may just need assistance, may just need treatment. Is there a perspective that changes at all? And I mean, even gets stronger in the case of the pandemic situation we're in. Should we be in a circumstance where those considerations are thought about even more because of the circumstances we face?

ISAACS: This is where the accusation of having a political agenda is, is so laughable. It's not like it's any big secret that we've been advocating for many years, saying Arizona has the fourth highest incarceration rate in this country. That's inappropriate. It's ineffective. We're wasting money. We're destroying people's lives. We're not putting a dent in the crime rate. Our recidivism rate is over 50%. What we're doing is not working. It wasn't working before COVID, and now it literally can kill people. So you could be sentencing someone to die in prison for a drug offense. And that is absurd.

GOLDSTEIN: The phrase "criminal justice reform" obviously has been used a lot. Your group has been involved in it. We've heard some, we've seen what some of us would label strange bedfellows getting involved. But there has been a significant push nationwide to try to do this. And the county attorney said she is interested in talking about that, but now is not the time. Can I just get your comment on that sort of phrase?

ISAACS: It's always the time. It was never not the time to do better. We could always do better than this. And now is the time when we can literally save people's lives. This is not an exaggeration. This is not an overstatement. As we're getting this trickle of information out of our Department of Corrections about the tremendous number of infections and deaths among incarcerated people and staff, we are going to come to know just how serious this is. And if it wasn't already a huge responsibility that county attorneys to determine whether or not it is appropriate for someone to be sent to prison for whatever infraction they may or may not have committed. Now it is incumbent upon them to actually consider all that [goes into] that sentence. And there's no question that there is a very high likelihood of infection of code that goes with a sentence to prison.

GOLDSTEIN: And Caroline, considering where a legislature is right now, not willing to adjourn, maybe getting back to work, we have no idea, obviously, at this point. There seemed to be momentum for this at the Capitol. At least there was hope for it. Does this obviously put a crimp in that, too? So does that make it even harder because the legislature is not actively involved now?

ISAACS: Of course, the the lack of movement on the bills is, is disappointing, and I think the other side, though, of that is if and when they do reconvene, the number one question is going to be how are we going to bridge this looming deficit? And I would just like to offer a friendly tip to any of our state legislators that I know how to save you hundreds of thousands of dollars.

GOLDSTEIN: Caroline Isaacs. She is the Arizona program director for the American Friends Service Committee. Caroline, thank you, as always, for your insights. We appreciate it.

ISAACS: Thank you, Steve.

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