ReFraming Justice: LaWall’s legacy of mass incarceration cemented by effort to block ballot initiative


by Rafael Batain, Tuesday Brauer, Vicky Campo, Ashley Cooper, Grace Gámez, Daniel Howe, Adrienne Kitcheyan, Nate McKowen, Virginia Mireles, Deborah North, Enrique Olivares-Pelayo, Alexandria Pech, Zach Perrino, Steve Scharboneau, Jr., Charlene Schwickrath, Zachary Stout, Joe Watson & Gerald Williams, Sr.

Earlier this month, a petition signed by more than 400 voters was delivered to the Pima County Board of Supervisors, asking them to defend the integrity of the ballot initiative process. Specifically, the one ballot initiative that Pima County’s elected chief prosecutor successfully worked so hard to invalidate: the Second Chances, Public Safety & Rehabilitation Act.

This modest, common-sense voter initiative would have allowed people incarcerated for non-dangerous offenses to earn time off their sentences for participating in programs and following the rules, and restore discretion to judges who are sick and tired of sending people to prison for excessively long periods of time.

Thanks to LaWall and a small but powerful cadre of reform obstructionists circumventing the democratic process, the Second Chances Act is off the ballot. Everybody lost.

More than 350,000 Arizonans signed the petition to put the Second Chances initiative on the ballot. A significant number of signatures that were wrongly invalidated were from Pima County. In court, where proponents of the initiative sought to reinstate invalidated signatures, Pima County was the only county that took an active and adversarial position, arguing fervently in favor of invalidating the signatures of Arizonans who signed the petition. This action by Pima County politicians is highly inappropriate and had the direct result of blocking the will of the voters. 

Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall intervened in the case to keep signatures from being validated, but also filed a separate lawsuit to disqualify the initiative. It is not only highly unusual, but ethically questionable, for an elected official to use her status and position to actively oppose direct democracy. Given that she’s been the Pima County Attorney for nearly a quarter-century, LaWall is directly responsible for a large percentage of Arizona’s prison population — the individuals who were seeking assistance and relief through this initiative process. That LaWall intervened to stop the voters from changing our laws to address mass incarceration is troubling, at best.

As leaders with the ReFraming Justice Project — formerly incarcerated people and families with loved ones who remain incarcerated — we have been advocating for and leading the conversation on sentencing reform for the last three years. This summer, on behalf of tens of thousands of incarcerated people and their loved ones across this state, we helped collect signatures to get the Second Chances Act on the November ballot.

The court’s decision was especially devastating to those of us who have a personal stake in the issue of sentencing reform. There are people we love who could have been given a second chance to come home to us and make our families whole again. That’s why we stood outside for hours at a time in the midday sun educating voters about the initiative, sanitizing clipboards and pens, and mobilizing our friends and families to do the same. In June, we directed traffic into “democracy drive-thrus” across the state, physically delivered petition sheets to all corners of Arizona, and volunteered to make phone calls in August in a last-ditch effort to “rehab” invalidated signatures.

We did it for our incarcerated parents — some of them elderly and with preexisting conditions —  whose lives are at increased risk because of the spread of COVID-19 inside our state prisons. They were not sentenced to death, yet the chances of that outcome are steadily increasing. The Second Chances Act could have brought them home safely, but instead the state will continue to play Russian roulette with their lives.

We did it for our incarcerated spouses and children, whose absences have devastated our families for far too long, some for decades already. The Second Chances Act would have reunited us a little faster and restored our familial bonds.

We did it for the friends many of us left behind in Arizona’s state prisons when we were released, most of whom need treatment and mental health programming that they should have received instead of prison and will never get from the Arizona Department of Corrections. If voters had the opportunity to pass the Second Chances Act, the hundreds of millions of dollars Arizonans would have saved thanks to a reduced prison population could have been invested in public health, community safety, and education.

Instead, thanks to LaWall and a small but powerful cadre of reform obstructionists circumventing the democratic process, the Second Chances Act is off the ballot. Everybody lost.

So many directly-impacted people poured their hearts and souls into getting this initiative on the ballot. When we told them what happened, they were utterly dismayed, asking, “How could just a few powerful interests manage to undo the will of 350,000 people of this state?” They deserve an answer to that question.

Criminal justice reform measures like the Second Chances Act are widely supported by Arizona’s voters. The problem is that the interests of the many have been thwarted by the few. That “few” happen to be the same people who helped create, profit from, and campaign for public office on our failed system of punishment. They are professionally and financially vested in maintaining the status quo — the fifth-highest incarceration rate in the US — at the expense of our state budget, our community’s safety and the cohesion of our families.

We will continue the fight for sentencing reform in Arizona and remind every state lawmaker of the hundreds of thousands of voters and constituents represented by those signatures we helped gather for the Second Chances Act.

Facing the corruption and brokenness of these structures — both the criminal justice system and our lawmaking system — is a tough pill to swallow, but it is necessary if we are to succeed in overcoming these obstacles in the interests of a democracy and a justice system that works for everyone. We all want the same things: to be safe in our homes and neighborhoods; to have resources to help our troubled friends and loved ones; and to have support and healing when we are harmed by others. The system we have now gives us none of that.

LaWall and the other architects and accomplices of this system know it doesn’t work for the people, and they know that the people want change. That’s why they went to such extreme lengths to keep the Second Chances Act off the ballot. They know it would have passed.

We know it, too. And so do the tens of thousands of people in the state of Arizona who have personally experienced the dysfunction of our criminal justice system. One in 13 Arizonans have a felony conviction — that’s what mass incarceration looks like. Translated into elections, that’s critical mass. Change is inevitable, and we will be here to see it through.

Assata Shakur once said, “We have a duty to fight for our freedom. We have a duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” In that spirit, we will continue the fight for sentencing reform in Arizona and remind every state lawmaker of the hundreds of thousands of voters and constituents represented by those signatures we helped gather for the Second Chances Act.

A project of the American Friends Service Committee-Arizona, ReFraming Justice is an ongoing multimedia storytelling and public education initiative led by incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, convicted people and their loved ones.

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