The Goldwater Institute and the ACLU of Arizona are teaming up for reforms to the state’s municipal courts.
Something as simple as smoking in public can — in extreme cases — lead to jail time in cities and towns across Arizona. So can spitting on the sidewalk. Or letting your weeds grow too tall. Or not returning a library book.
A new report warns that defendants in justice systems in Arizona’s cities and towns are sometimes serving jail time for such seemingly petty offenses, and that these municipal systems are overly influenced by city political forces.
Unusual partners — the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and the Goldwater Institute — are teaming up to seek reforms to a system that they say can encourage revenue generation over the fair judicial treatment promised to defendants, among other problematic practices.
“When the courts face pressure to generate revenue streams from fines and fees and then institute punitive practices ranging from suspending your driver’s licenses all the the way to the more egregious practice of locking people up for not paying fines, it destroys the criminal-justice system,” said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona.
Additionally, over-criminalization of petty crimes also allows police officers to search people who may be committing a seemingly small offense, such as smoking in public, and find something further incriminating, like illicit drugs, said Mark Flatten, an investigator with the Goldwater Institute.
“You stop somebody for a minor ordinance violation like smoking, and that becomes a pretense to basically shake them down,” Flatten said. “Basically, your Fourth Amendment rights are pretty much gone at that point.”
Or someone who commits a petty offense could wind up in jail after failing to pay their fines and fees or missing their court date.
Municipal court systems nationwide are susceptible to the same failures that the United States Department of Justice reported in its deep dive into the Ferguson, Missouri, justice system after the shooting of Michael Brown, Flatten said.
The groups released their findings this week in a report authored by Flatten, as well as a list of policy recommendations they hope the Arizona Legislature implements.
What do municipal courts do?
Municipal courts have criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanors and petty offenses, including traffic offenses, DUIs and leaving the scene of an accident.
They also deal with city-ordinance violations, sometimes considered criminal misdemeanors.
Arizona is one of a few dozen states with municipal or city court systems.
The way municipal judges in those states are appointed is a mixed bag, according to the National Center for State Courts. Some are appointed by the city council or mayor. Others are elected in partisan or non-partisan elections.
But in Arizona, municipal judges are not elected, except in Yuma. They are appointed by city or town councils, making them the only judges in the state who don’t directly answer to voters.
This means, Flatten states in his report, that the “fair and impartial dispensation of your case may not be the only thing that the judge has to think about that day.”
They could be facing pressure from the city to raise revenue. One of the problems with the current system is that municipal courts are funded by convictions and not the state, Soler said.
In interviews with the Goldwater Institute, municipal court judges said they never were explicitly told by city officials or council members to increase revenue. They did say that discussions about revenue projections are part of their duties, as they need to plan budgets.
Don Taylor, the chief presiding judge of Phoenix Municipal Court, is quoted in the report saying that he understands why people think city courts’ first role is to make money, though he denies ever being pressured to raise revenue.
“The court is not about making money,” Taylor said. “That’s a byproduct of what we do, which is hold people responsible.”
Basis for the report
The Goldwater Institute used the DOJ’s Ferguson investigation to establish a baseline for how municipal court practices can go awry.
From there, Arizona-specific data — mostly anecdotal evidence — was compiled into a 26-page article using police and court records, judge personnel evaluations, interviews and online research.
The institute also spoke with people in other states who have noticed similar issues in their municipal court systems.
Soler said the municipal court system turns into an “endless maze,” and because of that, they don’t have empirical data that shows how widespread these practices are.
Not every municipal court makes money. Although Phoenix is listed in the report as the court in the state with the highest earnings, its expenses exceed its revenue. By contrast, Paradise Valley’s court revenue is nearly five times its expenses.
Recommendations for reform
The current system can at times veer dangerously close to imprisoning people for being poor, Flatten said.
Allowing defendants to complete community service in lieu of paying a fine they cannot afford would be a good start to reform the system, Soler said.
“For many of these people, they’re never going to be able to afford to pay these fines,” Soler said. “It doesn’t make sense to waste more court resources to try to collect these fees and fines or even jailing people for not paying fines.”
Other recommendations for reform include: Consolidating the city courts into the county court system, which will ensure more consistency in the state legal system, and subjecting municipal court judges to retention elections, which means they’d still be appointed by city councils but then would still need to be re-elected by voters.
The recommendations also propose that municipal courts no longer suspend driver’s licenses if people don’t meet their court date, because this practice disproportionately harms low-income individuals.
Finally, they suggest local courts shouldn’t handle criminal matters.
Victor Riches, president of the Goldwater Institute, said the lobbying group still has not compiled its policy agenda for the next legislative session, but expects to be “out working these issues next year.”
For the ACLU, funding municipal courts through the state and ending the suspension of driver’s licenses for a missed court date are top policy-change priorities. Soler said the group does not have a position on some of the more structural changes to municipal court systems suggested by the Goldwater Institute.
The ACLU’s recommendations stem from the Task Force on Fair Justice for All, which was established in the 2016 legislative session.
Soler, who is a part of the task force, said bills this past session that were brought up by the recommendation of the force were not successful, but that she hopes Goldwater’s attention to the issue and the unusual co-support from their two groups will rejuvenate the efforts.
“For those of you who are raising eyebrows about the collaboration between ACLU and Goldwater — don’t be,” she said. “The right and the left are coming together around criminal-justice reform across the country.”
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