Freedom should be a priority when developing policy. In October of 2018, community members from South Phoenix got together for “Let’s Talk” - a gathering of over 70 people directly impacted by the criminal (in)justice system to speak freedom, discuss our experiences with the system, and talk real solutions. Our shared experiences have made us experts in the field of incarceration, criminalization, and state violence. However, our voices often go unheard.

We, Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), deeply believe that those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution. This means that those most equipped to make critical decisions about how we structure and run our criminal justice system are those who have been through it. Consequently, LUCHA and NLG decided to take the top concerns vocalized at “Let’s Talk” and draft legislation to address those concerns. The most common issues emerged when addressing: the school-to-prison pipeline; courts and prosecutors; police brutality and racial discrimination; and re-entry, probation and parole. Our discussions about law and policy changes within those subjects showed that directly impacted community members in South Phoenix have three major priorities:

  1. People need more opportunities to avoid having felonies on their records and to truly erase them after a conviction. Felonies prevent successful re-entry and cause other harmful social stigmas.

  2. The private profit motives surrounding the criminal (in)justice system need to be removed so that incarceration is not a priority in our community (i.e. fines and fees, pretrial bail, prison labor, etc)

  3. Sentencing laws are overly punitive and rely too heavily on long prison sentences instead of rehabilitation. Mandatory minimum sentences need to change.

The “Speak Freedom Bills” are three bills that directly respond to the major priorities of impacted community members. These bills address: (1) providing people with more opportunities to avoid a felony record for non-violent crimes (2) reducing the number of people who are exposed high mandatory minimums and (3) reducing probation fees.


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Expanding Undesignated Felonies

1 in 13 Arizonans has a current or prior felony conviction. The impact of even one felony conviction on housing, employment, and education can create insurmountable barriers to successful re-entry. Arizona is particularly harsh on past offenders and does not allow past convictions, no matter how old, to be removed from a person’s record. This leaves individuals at risk of enhanced sentencing for the rest of their life as Arizona mandates prison after one felony conviction no matter how old. This reality does not reflect the now widespread belief of people in Arizona that all people deserve second chances and that we must center rehabilitation over excessively punitive measures.  

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Most criminal defendants in our courts are poor. According to national numbers, about 80-90% of individuals charged with a criminal offense are poor enough to qualify for a court-appointed attorney. An estimated 20% of people in jail report having no income before they went in and close to 60% had a monthly earning of less than $1,000. Almost a third are unemployed before their arrest and many are homeless.

Despite the reality that a majority of people entering the criminal justice system are poor, we lack structures and systems that account for this and consequently overly criminalize and penalize poor people as opposed to defendants that have money. This is a system that effectively prioritizes money over justice.

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Arizona currently holds the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the United States. In the last 18 years, our prison population has grown by 60 percent. This growth was not driven by crime, which has declined during this period, but is in part due to long average terms of incarceration that are a result from Arizona’s enhanced sentencing structure.

In Arizona’s sentencing structure, it is mandated that having a prior felony conviction increases the length of incarceration. The impact prior felonies have on the increased length of incarceration depends on two factors: the amount of past felonies and how recently they were committed (recent prior felony convictions are considered “historical priors” and happened in the past 5-10 years). This creates an enhanced sentencing structure where a mandated imprisonment term can rapidly increase for individuals with 2 to 4 prior felonies no matter the nature of the new offense – non-violent or not, property or drug related or not, etc., especially if they are more recent, taking away judicial discretion.

The best research shows that long prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure. Despite this, Arizona keeps people in prison 25 to 100 percent longer than the national average.