In a brazen display of unchecked power and influence, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk censored a public defender by keeping him from sharing with Arizonans how much influence she and her fellow county attorneys have at the state Legislature – and how they’re using that power to hinder comprehensive criminal justice reform.
In a June 11 opinion editorial, Pima County Defender Joel Feinman described why every substantial criminal justice reform bill introduced this year died at the Legislature, and exposed the tremendous power held by County Attorneys and their lobbying arm, the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, or APAAC. Polk is the Chair of APAAC.
Feinman states that Polk called him demanding he retract his opinion editorial, accusing him of misrepresenting her private conversations with lawmakers. When Feinman refused to retract the piece, Polk took her complaint to the Star, according to the Phoenix New Times.
The Arizona Daily Star subsequently pulled the piece from its website.
The First Amendment gives every American the right to criticize elected officials like Polk. This right is perhaps the most crucial when elected officials are operating against the public interest. It is chilling to see Polk successfully misuse her power to keep Arizonans in the dark and influence what the media publishes.
This isn’t the first time Arizona prosecutors have tried to use intimidation to quash free speech. Last year, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall sent the ACLU of Arizona a cease and desist letter demanding we stop talking about her support for a bill that would have sentenced people suffering from drug addiction to years in prison.
Prosecutors don’t want the people who elect them to know what’s happening in their offices and beyond. This aversion to transparency is at the center of our lawsuit against Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery who took more than 200 days to respond to our request for basic records about how his office operates.
This new incident illustrates the lengths to which the most powerful county attorneys in Arizona are willing to go to avoid transparency. What must be going on behind closed doors at the Legislature?
Hiding from accountability is one of prosecutors’ most useful weapons in their fight against creating a fair justice system. Year after year, prosecutors have been in the ears of lawmakers and the Governor advocating against real criminal legal reform, while families and communities continue to be traumatized by long, unnecessary prison sentences. As a result, Arizona’s prison population has grown by more than 15,000 people since 2000—a 60 percent increase. Arizona now has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the country. We have become a national outlier for all the wrong reasons.
And this year, LaWall, Montgomery, and Polk were successful at killing every single substantial criminal justice reform bill, including the last-standing SB 1334, which would have taken away prosecutors’ ability to charge people as “repetitive offenders” the first time they come before a judge. SB 1334 passed unanimously through the House and received only 3 “no” votes in the Senate, but it was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Ducey after prosecutors lobbied him to do so. Ducey went against the will of the people and sided with those who are fueling our mass incarceration crisis in the first place.
The reason we are where we are is because prosecutors have operated in the dark at the state Capitol for years—now that light is being shed on their actions, Sheila Polk and others are trying to dim it. We won’t let that happen.