ACLU Building Criminal Justice Reform Team In Arizona

By Jimmy Jenkins
Published: Thursday, December 21, 2017 - 3:14pm
Updated: Wednesday, April 10, 2019 - 3:53pm
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The American Civil Liberties Union is dedicating significant resources to building a criminal justice reform advocacy team in Arizona.

ACLU of Arizona Executive Director Alessandra Soler said her chapter is part of a larger national effort called Campaign For Smart Justice.

“Our national organization has a goal of reducing our prison population in both jails and prisons across the country,” Soler said. “In addition we also want to reduce racial disparities in incarceration.”

Funded with $500,000 from the national ACLU, the Arizona chapter is adding five full-time staff to an existing team that will focus on criminal justice issues like bail and sentencing reform.

Soler said the new team members will serve as advocates at the statehouse as well as engage in community organizing.

“We went from 5,000 to 22,000 members here in Arizona, since the election,” Soler said of her chapter’s membership since the 2016 presidential election. “We really want to engage these folks in pushing for criminal reform over the next few years.”

Soler said the ACLU has not finalized a policy platform for the upcoming legislative session, but she thinks substantive reforms are possible. One example of potential legislation could be an expungement statute “that allows people to set aside their criminal convictions,” Soler said.

Arizona does not currently have legislation regarding expungement. A similar law just went into effect in North Carolina that allows those convicted of a crime to clear their record. Soler said expungement laws can help people find jobs and transition back into society.

Long term, Soler said the goal would be to turn back Truth-In-Sentencing policies established in Arizona in the 90s. “Truth-in-sentencing requires that every single person serve at least 85 percent of their sentence — even if they’re non-violent offenders,” Soler said. “We know that’s one of the reasons we have such high incarceration rates. Many people that are behind bars don’t need to be there.”

Soler called the current sentencing policies counter-productive. “These people aren’t getting rehabilitation. They aren’t getting the services they need to become productive members of society when they get out.”

According to a 2015 study published by the Morrison Institute for public policy at Arizona State University, Arizona’s prison population had grown 171 percent since 1992.