Pima Democrats, both Jewish, vying for county attorney post

Joel Feinman, left, and Barbara LaWall
Joel Feinman, left, and Barbara LaWall

Barbara LaWall, a Democrat first elected in 1996, is running for her sixth term as Pima County Attorney. Joel Feinman, who practiced criminal law as a Pima County public defender from 2007-2015 and who is also a Democrat, announced his candidacy for the county attorney position in October. Both candidates are Jewish. In advance of the primary election on Aug. 30, the Arizona Jewish Post asked them to answer an identical set of questions.  

A Green Party candidate, Cyndi Tuell, also recently filed signatures to run for the position. So far, no Republicans have filed petitions.

Feinman and LaWall’s responses follow, in alphabetical order.

Joel Feinman

What are the most pressing law enforcement/public safety issues facing Pima County and how can they be addressed?

The most important requisites for any community are peace and justice, and I believe that we need to act on three main priorities in order to promote these principles here in Pima County.

First, we need to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of violent crime. For 11 of the last 12 years the Pima County Attorney has filed more non-violent felony drug cases than any other type of case, and there are more people in Arizona prisons for non-violent drug crimes than for any other type of crime. This has to change. The county attorney can make violent crime, sex crime, and home invasions our most-prosecuted cases, and refocus their efforts on protecting victims and keeping our streets safe.

Second, we need to remember that one of the best ways to reduce future crime is helping people who have served their sentences find good jobs and stable homes so that they become productive taxpayers. The county attorney has the ability to help people who have paid their debts to society by helping set aside convictions, cleaning up records, and getting civil rights restored.

Third, we need to strengthen public faith in our law enforcement agencies, including the police and prosecutors. Our community has to trust in the rule of law, and must believe that the law exists to protect and defend everyone in Pima County, no matter what they look like or where they come from. The county attorney can help by hiring a full-time police and sheriff’s liaison, who would support law enforcement in their efforts to serve and protect our community.

What new initiatives do you have in mind for the County Attorney’s Office?

I will review the office’s attorney recruitment and retention policies while boosting morale within the office. I can and will improve the 40 percent attorney turnover rate, and the 45.5 percent felony trial win rate. We do not need more people in jail or saddled with felony records, and this stunningly low conviction rate demonstrates that the right people are not being charged with the right crimes.

I will implement policies to reduce mass incarceration. Pima County should enact an Early Intervention Program similar to the one initiated by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. This is an evidence-based program initiated after an arrest but before an indictment. It is designed to funnel more non-violent offenders into diversion which, if successfully completed, leaves them without a criminal record.

I will change the fact that the Pima County Jail is the County’s largest mental health care provider, and push for implementation of a Mental Health Crisis Intervention Program for mentally ill people who are arrested for minor offenses. Law enforcement leaders have done this in Miami to great effect, sending certain people to crisis intervention units instead of jail. This program has led to a drop in the average daily Miami jail population from 7,200 to 4,000, and the closure of one entire jail facility.

How do Jewish values influence your work?

Growing up, I remember Rabbi Bill Berk quoting Deuteronomy 16:20 — “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” There are Jews across the world involved in social justice movements of all stripes. Our values teach us that we, a people who have experienced oppression like few others, are duty-bound to fight inequity wherever we find it. We have bitter experience living through the truth of Dr. Martin Luther King’s words; that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. As a Jew I must do my part to pursue justice, to fight for it, and to demand it benefit our entire community.

What’s the most important difference between you and your opponent in this race — and how do you respond to her criticisms?

My opponent has said she believes that “all of the right people are in prison.” I do not believe that. Arizona has the sixth highest incarceration rate in the U.S. If you believe that “all of the right people are in prison,” then Arizonans must be the sixth most evil people in the country. I do not believe that. Our state incarcerates Hispanics at a two times, Native Americans at a three times, and African-Americans at a five times higher rate than Caucasians. There has been a 261 percent per capita increase in the number of women imprisoned in Pima County Jail over the last 20 years. The most important difference between my opponent and myself is that I agree with President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Senator Sanders that we have a mass incarceration problem in this country; my opponent does not agree. I believe that we can do better. We can re-focus our prosecutorial priorities on violent criminals, sex criminals, home invaders, and white-collar criminals. We can stop locking up poor people, mentally ill people, and people of color under the rubric of the war on drugs. We can rebuild the bond between the police and the county attorney, and make sure our law enforcement professionals are always consulted on law enforcement. We can make our community a better, more equal, and more just place to live.

My opponent’s biggest criticism seems to be that I do not have her experience. She has a point — in a way. I spent my entire career practicing criminal law in the courtroom, so I do not have experience spending the last 20 years outside of it. I do not have any experience losing more than half of the felony cases I take to trial, or sending three times more African-Americans to Pima County Jail per capita than Caucasians, or contributing to the eye-popping 261 percent increase in women imprisoned in the jail. Our community can do without experience like this. We need a new path; we need to forge a new vision for safety and justice in our community. We do not need more of the same experience that got us here in the first place.

Final thoughts

I have a vision for our community, a belief that we can live up to the better angels of our nature. I believe that we can become the just society that our Constitution was written to forge. We can help people avoid becoming repeat offenders, and smooth their path toward employment. We can help juvenile offenders rehabilitate by not prosecuting them as adults for minor crimes. We can focus on prosecuting truly violent and dangerous criminals, so that we restore faith in the rule of law. We can do better.

Barbara LaWall

What are the most pressing law enforcement/public safety issues facing Pima County and how can they be addressed?

Pima County is at the epicenter of a major drug trafficking corridor, through which massive quantities of heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and other drugs are transported, contributing to the availability of low-cost, highly dangerous narcotics, and violent crimes perpetrated by narco-traffickers protecting their product.

The abuse of prescription opioid drugs and heroin, particularly among adolescents, is growing substantially, and is higher in Pima County than in the rest of the state. Substance abuse in young people is a significant risk factor for delinquency, school dropout, crime, violence and teen pregnancy.

Domestic violence and impaired driving are seriously epidemic. Sex trafficking, rape and unspeakable crimes against children have also increased.

Along with the drug trade, the prevalence of guns and gangs has dramatically increased. Every thug and gang member is well-armed and willing to use deadly force at any time. The deadly and harmful results of gun violence are seen daily: babies are shot to death; women are gunned down by abusive spouses; gang members are better armed with automatic weaponry than our police, and automatic weapons and massive amounts of ammunition are readily available to anyone.

Persons with mental illness fill our jails and prisons, which are becoming the psychiatric hospitals of the 21st century.

There is no simple, quick fix for any of these complex issues.

To address violent crime and protect public safety, we target and vigorously prosecute the violent, dangerous and highly repetitive offenders, those serious felony offenders who commit murder, rape, child molestation and abuse, armed robbery, aggravated assault, drive-by shooting, armed home invasions.

As a result, violent crime has significantly decreased because we target and lock up the most violent, dangerous and repetitive offenders who commit the majority of the serious crimes.

We must not only be tough on crime, but also smart on crime. Not every offender belongs in prison.

I have implemented numerous diversion programs to address  these issues, and consistently work in a collaborative fashion in the criminal justice system to improve outcomes and produce better results.

I have led the way, in Pima County, in Arizona and in the nation, in providing rehabilitative treatment services to non-violent offenders who, but for their addiction or mental illness, would not have committed any crimes.

I developed Pima County’s Drug Court and Narcotics Diversion programs, and created the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison Program (DTAP), which provides treatment and wrap-around recovery support services in place of prison for non-violent, repetitive felony offenders who suffer from addiction. This program saves lives, saves money, reduces crime, costs less than half the price of prison, and has a 70 percent success rate.

What new initiatives do you have in mind for the County Attorney’s Office? 

I’ve created numerous initiatives to improve public safety, prevent juvenile crime, and advance the efficiencies of the office, including: a Conviction Integrity Unit, 17 neighborhood Community Justice Boards, School Multi-Agency Response teams in 55 schools and 9 school districts, a Kids-in-Court program, Courthouse Dogs, the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center, the Bad Check program, Drug Court and DTAP.

There are several new initiatives I intend to pursue in my next term.

Using newly developed, highly sophisticated technology and software, I am implementing an intelligence-driven strategy of prosecution, and a violence reduction initiative that will transform the way our prosecutors fight crime.

We are engaging in a new intelligence and data-driven pro-active collaboration with law enforcement to identify the high-rate offenders who drive crime in Pima County, and focus on their arrest and prosecution. By carefully targeting these high-rate repetitive offenders, we are smarter on crime and continue to drive down the crime rate.

The recent $1.5 million MacArthur Safety + Justice grant seeks to reduce over-reliance on our jail with a focus on addressing the disproportionate impact on low-income individuals and communities of color. I will continue working to create alternatives to incarceration at the jail, to produce a fairer, more effective justice system.

I obtained a planning grant to establish a Behavioral Health Treatment Court Collaborative in Pima County to serve the population of substance abuse addicted, mentally ill, non-violent misdemeanor offenders currently incarcerated in our county jail. This is an important initiative to be completed in my next term.

Because the vast majority of prison inmates are released and return to our community, I will continue to work with the Second Chances program, which is leading a re-entry effort in Pima County to reduce recidivism.

I am already known for developing highly innovative, creative, and unique community outreach and prevention programs, and will continue seeking new ways to improve our services to the community.

How do Jewish values influence your work?

I am guided by the Jewish values my parents instilled in me. These are the values I have spent my entire life working for — justice, giving to charity and giving back to the community, treating people with respect and dignity, being kind and compassionate, being honest and having integrity. These values have had a significant influence on me as a prosecutor, especially when working with victims.

These values, and the Jewish saying, “Justice shall you pursue,” have served me exceptionally well as a prosecutor, which requires an absolute commitment and adherence to truth, justice and ethics, all of which are strongly embedded in Jewish values.

What is the most important difference between you and your opponent in this race?

My opponent, a criminal defense attorney, has zero prosecution experience. He has been a defender representing individual criminal clients for only eight years. I have spent my entire legal career protecting the public safety of this community, prosecuting the offenders who threaten and endanger us all. He has not.

My opponent has never supervised nor managed a trial team, much less an entire law office. He has no civil legal experience whatsoever. This is a critical deficiency. The Pima County Attorney is the lawyer for all of Pima County’s elected officials, department heads and Board of Supervisors.

I possess a wealth of experience, competence and know-how. I do not need any on-the-job training. I have prosecuted every type of case imaginable, managed the entire criminal prosecution function as chief criminal deputy, and learned personnel, management and administration issues of the entire office as chief deputy.

As the elected county attorney, I have another two decades of experience, skills and competence in managing and administering the largest law firm in Southern Arizona, with a staff of 400 employees, 100 attorneys and a budget of more than $30 million.

I have received numerous awards and honors nationally, state-wide and locally for ethics and integrity, for doing justice as a prosecutor, and for creating highly unique and far-reaching programs providing innovative criminal justice solutions.

How do you respond to his criticisms? 

Our conviction rate is 91.9 percent; 85 percent guilty at trial; 65 percent of our trials are violent, dangerous offenders, less than 3 percent of trials are narcotics cases.  Non-violent first or second time drug offenders are not sentenced to prison. Arizona law requires persons convicted of drug possession to be sentenced to probation and be given drug treatment for the first two convictions. Fewer than 6 percent of Arizona Department of Corrections inmates are drug offenders.  Ninety-five percent of inmates at the AZ DOC are violent, dangerous or repetitive offenders, and 65 percent are violent and repetitive. We regularly prosecute economic crimes. (Arizona Supreme Court and Prisoners in Arizona statistics)

Final thoughts:

The work that I get to do every day is profoundly special and meaningful. Every day I get to make a living and make a difference. Every day I get to fight for safe streets and secure homes. Every day I get to work to improve the public safety of this community. Every day I have the privilege and opportunity “to be part of the action and the passion of our times.” I am blessed and fortunate.