111th Arizona Town Hall

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The 111th Arizona town hall focused on examining the criminal justice system. People from all over the state examined and gave their recommendations on this issue. With us to talk about the town hall are Gilberto Mendez, from the Casa Grande Boys & Girls Club and Casa Grande Elementary School District, and John Burton, CEO of JP Burton Group.

Al Macias: Coming up next on "Horizonte,” a town hall focused on looking at Arizona's criminal justice system and the latest on the Phoenix race for mayor headed for a run off in March. Plus an event celebrating and empowering veterans all this up next on "Horizonte."

Video: "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Al Macias: Good evening and welcome to "Horizonte,” I’m Al Macias in tonight for Jose Cardenas. The 111th Arizona town hall focused on examining the criminal justice system. People from all over the State gave their opinions on recommendations on this issue. With me to talk about the Arizona town hall are Gilbert Mendez, he is on the board of the Casa Grande Boys and Girls Club and with the Casa Grande Elementary School District. And John Burton, CEO of JP Burton Group. Thank you for joining us on Horizonte tonight.

John Burton: Good to be here.

Gilbert Mendez: Good to be here.

Al Macias: So, the town hall is focused on criminal justice and all the ramifications, all the different aspects of it. What are the big issues, of course has been criminal justice and criminal sentencing. Crime sentencing. What part of or what aspect of the whole process did that play in your discussions, John?

John Burton: Well our discussions of the recent statewide conference as well as in community town halls all across the State. I personally was involved in six of them, we had 18. Sentencing is always a big topic it's a hot button now. Mandatory sentencing in Arizona, items like prosecutorial discretion come up. The prosecution has one perspective. The defense attorneys have another. So sentencing is something that we talked about and it's something that most of the panels in the Statewide town hall felt that that was something that we really need to make a priority to look at sentencing to in some cases overhaul the entire system.

Al Macias: Who was included in this? I mean did you have prosecutors, defense attorneys, civilians, who was all there?

John Burton: We did. You know in our community town halls around the State including two that we did in state prisons. We had a mixture. We would have prosecutors, we had people from the department of corrections, people from the drug and alcohol community, substance abuse community, teachers, defense attorneys, we had a broad, you know, very broad base of people who take part in the Arizona town halls. At the statewide, we had a lot of you know we had judges. We had very passionate advocates. So these are all people who are coming there because number one their passion, number two, most importantly, they want to make a difference. They want their voice to be heard. And they want to take part in this discussion and one of the things that is so unique about the Arizona town hall process, is, you know, as we said, when we start Thursday night, leave your titles at the door. They will be waiting for you on Saturday afternoon. We are here to, you know, collectively communicate on key issues this year being the criminal justice system. And we are here to hear all points of view. We’re not here to attack someone's point of view. We’re here at the end of the day reach consensus and through civil discourse and really find common ground that ultimately is going to help us be able to find solutions that are going to move Arizona forward.

Al Macias: Gilbert, this is your first time around for this, and you come from Casa Grande. What kind of perspective are you able to bring to this? -- and what did you get out of this? What did you find yourself seeing and hearing?

Gilbert Mendez: Correct. So, you always hear about polarization in America and there’s a lot of fighting especially talking about criminal justice reform. I was shocked when I walked in the first time Thursday, and in the beginning, hearing, you know, all of these different perspectives, people from different walks of life, political parties, and then Saturday afternoon when we were drafting the bill -- or excuse me, the report. Seeing all this consensus, all the agreements on all of these topics, all these priorities that we were outlining for our report that we would be issuing soon. And so that was a very beautiful experience, it gave me hope that there is hope to change our criminal justice system in Arizona.

Al Macias: You’re from Casa Grande, and it’s a smaller town not too far—it’s halfway, really, almost between Phoenix and Tucson. What kind of perspective were you able to offer to you know, John’s from Tucson, the other big boys and girls who you know the bigger counties. What were able to offer to this group as far as ideas and suggestions?

Gilbert Mendez: Yes so rural issues. You know being in a rural area, prison population is something very big for us. Also being young. I talked to a lot of young people that I work with and so asking them ‘Hey, you know, what do you want to see in criminal justice reform?’ A lot of sentencing came up. And that was a big discussion in our group over the weekend.

Al Macias: What are some of the numbers out there, John. I’ve seen some, you know like, Arizona prison population is 12 times larger now than it was 40 years ago. In your discussions were you able to determine what is driving those numbers? Why is Arizona’s population compared to other western states, in your discussions, were there answers to that question?

John Burton: That's a great question. I think that one of the keys that we talked about and this is maybe not directly answering your question because, you know, I really can't speak to specific numbers and some of the other states. But one of, you know, the key thing that seems to be driving so much of our crime in Arizona, is substance abuse and mental health issues. And these were things that we repeatedly kept hearing from county to county, town to town and, at the statewide talking with the prosecutors from Navajo county to, you know, Cochise county. We have significant substance abuse, you know, problems and we have mental health. And so, you know, these are -- I was talking to one prosecutor, you know, side-bar, at an event in Tucson, and they were putting numbers out like 85 to 90% of all crimes that they, you know, that they charge, have a basis and substance abuse. So something has to be done about the substance abuse and the mental health issues that face our state and face, you know, other states around the country. That seems to be something that people really were adamant about addressing. What can we do on the front end as an alternative to jail? People are coming in, and let's say you stop somebody, make a stop, you are able to determine there on the spot this person doesn't have an outstanding warrants they be don't have a prior conviction. What can we do right here and now? Where can we get this person that clearly, is you know, high on something, where can we get them help right here right now that’s going to make a difference. By doing that, you know and I can speak to my experience at the wet stone going inside and being involved in that town hall inside the wet stone prison in Tucson. So many of the inmates said if I’d only had someone to talk to. If I had only been able to get some help, I would not be here right now. That is very profound and so that seems to be a huge problem.

Al Macias: And I know that’s the front end and I know we were talking earlier and if either one of you wants to jump in here. The back end. So those have been in prison now and they are coming out. And they will come out, they have served their sentence, but is there much support for them? Is there enough support I guess I should say? Gilbert do you want to take that?

Gilbert Mendez: That was actually one of the top priorities that we outlined- fully funding our transition programs, so we can assist. So they don’t just go out into the community with no support and are lost. And then go back in to system. You know that would save us a lot of money, all the tax payers in Arizona.

Al Macias: John, I mean, did you hear the same thing?

John Burton: We did and the problem is, again, it comes down to reentry. You know, whether it’s $150 that they are left with at the bus stop. Whether it’s $75. We’re talking about a few dollars. These are folks who have done their time and they are coming back out into society and because they have a felony, they can't in many cases gets a job. They can't rent an apartment. In many cases they go to a halfway house. Well the problem there is that the halfway houses are overcrowded. They have, you know, drug use going on so these are people that are coming back out and immediately being put right back in to a very compromising situation. And so, you know, I know in the panel that I was involved in, there were so many conversations about how can we partner with the business community to start providing, you know, job opportunities while they are in prison. They can go places during the day, work, learn skills, when they come out in many cases, they have a job waiting for them. The final thought on that was, and it was a big, big discussion point, everywhere I was, during the town hall process. Every community rather I was at, was the restoration of rights. You know, you have done your time, restoration of rights. We are talking about four, not talking about somebody that has committed a horrific crime. We’re talking about the basic person, someone in there that made a mistake, they did five years. You know, coming back out and being able to have their rights restored is going to go a long way in helping them assimilate back in to their community.

Al Macias: Quickly if you don't mind, but what is the next step? You’ve issued a report. Do you go to the legislature? Or who is it up to now to move those recommendations?

Gilbert Mendez: Yes. So the report will be issued in December-- mid December. And so we will be giving it to every member of the state legislature. It's our goal that each of those members, regardless of party, reads the report and pushes for criminal justice reform here in the state of Arizona and I hope also the governor reads it. There is a lot of -- there is a lot of good and positive priorities here that I think they should look into and hopefully implement in the state legislature.

Al Macias: Well thank you. Thank you for being here and thank you for your work. It's obviously an issue that is critical. It costs taxpayers lot of money on both ends and if there are some of these answers that can lead to solutions that would be great. So thank you very much for your work and thank you again for being here.

John Burton: Thank you for having us.

Gilbert Mendez: Thank you, sir.

Al Macias: Absolutely. Coming up later in the show find out about an organization that helps veterans with employment, entrepreneurship and educational opportunities.

John Burton, CEO of JP Burton Group
Gilberto Mendez, from the Casa Grande Boys & Girls Club and Casa Grande Elementary School District

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