Arizona Town Hall panelists discuss criminal justice reform and families

Left to Right: Jeff Taylor, chairman of the board of the Arizona Salvation Army; Quinton Moore; Rebecca Gau, executive director of Stand for Children; moderator Olivia Elder. Photo by Kathy Kitagawa | Arizona Town Hall

A panel discussion led by the non-profit Arizona Town Hall focused on the harm incarcerated parents have on the health of their families and how criminal justice reforms can play a role in helping alleviate some of those issues in the state.  

The panel comes just as lawmakers are starting to submit bills for the upcoming session and some GOP leaders, such as Rep. Walter Blackman, have signaled their intent on pursuing criminal justice reforms, despite there being a lack of enthusiasm for such reforms at the Capitol. 

The Arizona Town Hall discussion on Nov. 15 centered on how Arizona’s criminal justice system harms more than just those who wind up in prison.

“It’s meant for us to fail, it’s meant for us not to succeed,” panelist Quinton Moore said of Arizona’s system. 

Moore, who has been in and out of prisons, said mother was incarcerated when he was 16, leaving him to take care of his family until he found himself on the wrong side of the law. Eventually, he and his mother were in prison at the same time, writing letters to each other. 

Moore said his faith guided him through his time in prison – he’s now working to become a pastor – but policies in place within and without the prison system have set people up to fail and are adversely impacting not just inmates, but the families as well. 

Moore’s son was born while he was in prison, and he said visitations were often difficult. In one instance, a visitation was cancelled because his toddler son was wearing the wrong color shirt. His son was dressed in orange, and guards said he couldn’t see his father because the child’s shirt was the same color as the inmate uniforms. 

Arizona Town Hall President Tara Jackson said the Arizona Department of Corrections could implement small changes to fix issues like that could lead to better developments for inmates and families down the road, such as a box of extra shirts to ensure children aren’t barred from seeing their parents. 

“That costs no money. None,” Jackson said. 

Moore also provided insights into how costs associated with being in prison can complicate communicating with family. 

“Do I eat this week or do I write home?” Moore said about how he had to prioritize if he wanted to buy envelopes or food with the meager wages he earned from his prison job. 

But the harm goes beyond just those inside, according to education advocate Rebecca Gau. 

Gau is the executive director of Stand for Children, a non-profit that advocates for education for children who may be adversely harmed due to socioeconomic, health or other reasons. 

“We’re asking for something that is impossible for some of the students in our state,” Gau said of those who say that the burden of education is at times on the parent. 

Gau stressed the need for schools in Arizona to look into trauma-informed education, a form of teaching that helps students who may be having a hard time in studies due to things going on in their personal lives – such as having a parent incarcerated. 

Nationally, one in 28 children have a parent who is incarcerated. 

But Arizona is one of the top states for incarceration, and a 2015 study concluded that one in nine children in Arizona had a parent who was incarcerated.

Jackson said some of these issues could be addressed to help ease how incarceration impacts families. 

Lowering the costs for phone calls, clothing boxes for situations like what Moore ran into and lessening sentences for minor drug offenses are just some of the ideas Jackson said would have an immediate effect. 

The Arizona Department of Corrections has been receptive to some of the ideas, Jackson said, but is restricted by its own budgetary necessities. 

But how does Jackson intend to get lawmakers to listen to criminal justice reform ideas when historically, they haven’t been so receptive? 

“One of the ways is to say that it saves a lot of taxpayer money,” Jackson said, adding that “being smart on crime” instead of “tough on crime” could help lead to less recidivism. 

However there is one other obstacle: society. 

Jackson lamented that most voters are happy to vote for politicians who are quick to lock people up and said that needs to change. 

“It’s society that also needs to change,” she said.