We recently received a letter from Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, an elected official, asking us to stop publicly discussing her position on a dangerous bill, HB 2241, which aims to create mandatory minimum sentences for the sale or transfer of some opioids.
She sent us a formal “cease and desist” letter, demanding we stop writing on social media about her support for the bill. But baseless legal threats will not stop the ACLU of Arizona and our members from holding prosecutors accountable for supporting policies that put more people who need treatment into prison, do nothing for public safety, and come at a great cost to Arizona's taxpayers.
LaWall incorrectly maintains that HB 2241, which would require sentences of five years or more for people convicted of selling certain drugs, would not hurt addicts who need help.
Here’s the problem with her assertion: This bill makes no distinction between high-level drug traffickers and addicts who sell small amounts of drugs to support their addiction. Anyone convicted of selling fentanyl or heroin would go to prison without any opportunity for a judge to examine the individual circumstances of their case and sentence them accordingly.
LaWall claims she does not support incarcerating people who suffer from addiction. If this is the case, how could she publicly fight for a bill that does not allow a judge to weigh the seriousness of one’s addiction against one’s alleged crimes?
The ACLU of Arizona is not alone in our opposition to HB 2241. Opinion columnists, lawmakers, and non-partisan organizations focused on creating a just criminal justice system have publicly called out this bill for its outdated and dangerous approach to the opioid crisis. In fact, opposition to the bill was strong enough to effectively kill it.
HB 2241’s vague language also sets people up for imprisonment if they simply share drugs with other addicts without money changing hands. Once imprisoned, these individuals would have little to no chance of receiving proper rehabilitation or drug treatment. That’s why so many drug users end up back in prison—because Arizona’s criminal justice system does not invest in drug treatment and abuse prevention.
Further, this reckless bill is bound to come at a high cost for Arizona taxpayers. LaWall should already be well aware of this. A recent analysis prepared by the Pima County Public Defense Services found Pima County and the City of Tucson are spending an estimated $26 million each year on prosecuting small-scale drug offenses. The analysis found 22 percent of all felony cases indicted in Pima County are drug cases involving less than one gram of drugs. While LaWall touts Pima County’s “Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison” (DTAP) program as a sign of her support for treatment instead of prison, these statistics suggest otherwise.
Simply put: By aggressively fighting for HB 2241, Barbara LaWall is sticking with failed drug policies and an ineffective incarceration system. By threatening the ACLU with a "cease and desist" letter, she is exploiting her position of power to prevent the ACLU from informing voters, and keep taxpayers in the dark, about a criminal justice system that is badly broken. We do not need more mandatory minimum sentences. We need a system that values treatment and prevention, as well as flexibility for judges to determine individualized sentences when incarceration is unavoidable.