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Arizona prisons ban book on black men in the justice system

PHOENIX — Arizona has banned prisoners from reading a book that discusses the impact of the criminal justice system on black men, drawing outcry from First Amendment advocates who say the move is censorship.

The American Civil Liberties Union called on the Arizona Department of Corrections this week to rescind the ban on “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.” The book by Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, examines law enforcement and mass incarceration through its treatment of African American men.

“In order for them to ban a book, they have to show the restriction is related to a legitimate prison interest,” said Emerson Sykes, an ACLU attorney. “There’s no interest to keep inmates from learning about the criminal justice system and policing.”

The New Press  

“Chokehold: Policing Black Men” by Paul Butler

Butler, a criminal law professor at Georgetown University, said his publisher was notified by email in March that his book had “unauthorized content.” The notice did not specify what led to the decision but warned that some aspect of the 2017 book was “detrimental to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the facility.”

Butler said he is mystified as to what raised alarm bells. He uses the title, which is a maneuver police have used to restrain a suspect by the neck, throughout the book as a metaphor for how society and law subjugate black men. Nowhere does Butler advocate violent or retaliatory behavior.

“I disavow violence because first, I think it’s immoral, and second, because it wouldn’t work,” Butler said. “I’ve received letters from several inmates who have read ‘Chokehold’ while they are serving time. No one has indicated that reading ‘Chokehold’ has caused any problems in prison.”

Arizona’s corrections department prohibits inmates from receiving publications that contain any depictions or descriptions that would incite or facilitate a riot, a resistance or stopping work. They also can’t contain pictures, illustrations or text that encourage “unacceptable sexual or hostile behaviors.” Any publications with sexually explicit material or sexual representations of inmates and law enforcement also are not permitted.

Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder said the department had not yet received the ACLU’s letter asking for the ban to be reversed and declined further comment Monday.

The agency is in a court battle over a similar case. Prison Legal News, a monthly journal, sued corrections officials in 2015 for refusing to deliver four issues in 2014. The publication said in court documents that there were descriptions of “non-salacious” sexual contact between jail guards and prisoners when talking about incidents where inmates were sexually harassed. The case is set for trial later this year.

Supporters say access to books for the more than 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. can make all the difference for life outside the prison walls. More education decreases the likelihood of repeat offenses and can lead to better job prospects later, according to inmate advocates. They point to studies showing the literacy rates of incarcerated white, black and Hispanic people are significantly lower than their non-incarcerated counterparts.

About half the adult prison population doesn’t have a high school degree, said Christia Mercer, a philosophy professor at Columbia University who has taught classes in New York prisons. Reading books can be transformative and help them feel like they are using their time to make something of themselves.

“Unless the book itself promotes violence, there is never a reason not to allow it,” Mercer said. “Short of that, anything that gets people to read and think about themselves in the world is just going to be good for the person.”

Arizona’s population of 7.1 million is roughly 5% black, according to the U.S. census. As of October 2018, the corrections department found black people make up 14.5% of the 42,000 inmates in the Arizona system.

“One in 19 black men are in prison in Arizona right now,” Butler said. “Rather than acknowledge it’s a good thing that inmates want to read about and debate important public policy, Arizona pushes back against rehabilitation, against literacy, against the Constitution.”

Sykes, of the ACLU, said the group is prepared to sue if corrections officials fail to respond to its written request to end the book’s exclusion. He believes the ban was made based on content, which would be unconstitutional.

It’s not uncommon for state prisons to ban books, Sykes said. “Chokehold” is also not the first book dealing with racial justice issues to be prohibited.

In January 2018, New Jersey banned from two prisons “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. The 2010 book looks at how black felons convicted of minor crimes are seemingly set up to fail. Officials reversed course after receiving a letter from the ACLU.

“When these issues come up, we try our best to push back against them,” Sykes said. “Unfortunately, the reality is I think in many cases, no action is taken because people whose rights are being affected are not in a strong position to push back.”

GOP lawmakers pick apart proposed $11.9B budget

PHOENIX — A litany of questions and objections from Republican lawmakers about the $11.9 billion proposed budget has left GOP leaders with a basic question: Now what?

Rank and file legislators, getting their first real look at the spending and tax cut plan late Monday, are lining up to say that they need funding for one or more pet programs to secure their votes.

But there’s an even more basic issue for some Republicans.

On paper, the plan includes about $325 million in tax cuts. Most of that is designed to make up for the fact that some Arizonans will owe more in state income taxes due to changes in federal tax law.

Put simply, it’s designed to be revenue neutral, with the state taking in no more than it does now.

Only thing is, the people who would be getting the tax cuts are not necessarily the ones who will be paying more. So the net result is that some Arizonans would end up with a higher net income tax after the cuts than they are paying now.

That angers Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Phoenix. He’s one of the holdouts on the budget until the tax cut is recrafted to include a “hold harmless” provision to ensure that no one ends up with a higher bill.

Sen. David Farnsworth, D-Mesa, said he’s siding with Mesnard and withholding his vote.

Senate President Karen Fann, R-Mesa, acknowledged the complaint.

“No plan’s going to be absolutely perfect,” she said. But Fann said her big concern is for the people in the lower half of the income scale to make sure that they aren’t hit.

But the whole idea of cutting tax rates — and making those cuts permanent, with no provision to review them as the state’s needs change — is causing its own heartburn among some Republicans.

Some of it goes to the question of what’s not being funded.

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, said one of her concerns is restoring funding taken away from public schools during the recession.

Last year lawmakers approved a five-year schedule to put back the $371 million that schools are supposed to get for things like books, computers and buses. And this year’s budget plan does accelerate that.

But it still leaves schools about $130 million short — and that in a year when lawmakers are proposing not just what some see as tax cuts but also setting another $250 million aside this year into a rainy day fund.

Brophy McGee also said that the state needs to do more to reimburse organizations that provide services to the disability community. She said they were hard hit by the 2016 vote to increase the minimum wage from $8.05 an hour to $12 by next year.

Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, has a laundry list of her own priorities.

But what really annoys her is how the cuts in income taxes were presented as a done deal.

“Where’s the public debate?” she asked. “Where’s alternative proposals?”

And what’s also missing, said Carter, is looking at what she believes is the larger picture.

“I get we need to do everything we can to have a thriving economy in the state of Arizona,” she said.

“That needs to be balanced with the role the government has a constitutional mandate to fund our schools,” Carter continued. “And so where’s the public debate around those issues?”

What’s worse, she said, is that some issues that did get a public debate — and public approval — are nowhere in the funding plan.

One prime example, she said, was legislation to provide grants to families of limited means to be able to keep their elderly parents at home. Carter said this would pay for things like grab bars in the bathroom.

And then there are programs that really don’t cost any taxpayer dollars.

Consider the Housing Trust Fund which is supposed to help provide affordable housing. By law it is supposed to receive half of what the state collects from the sale of unclaimed property, or more than $50 million a year.

But lawmakers, looking for quick cash during the recession, raided those dollars. And even with the state in much better fiscal health now, the proposal on the table would restore just $10 million.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, has her own objections to the plan.

She has made repeal of a controversial $32-a-vehicle registration fee a condition for getting her vote.

The plan does that — sort of: It proposes to phase out the fee, but not until 2024. Ugenti-Rita called that a slap.

“It really doesn’t take the opposition to the fee seriously,” she said. “That is not a meaningful proposal.”

But any effort to secure her vote by eliminate the fee immediately runs into another problem: It currently brings in $185 million a year to fund the Highway Patrol.

Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, said he worries that if the fee goes away — whether now or in 2024 — that will bring Arizona back to a situation where the state was taking money from gasoline taxes to keep troopers on the road. And Campbell, who has been one of the chief proponents of more money for highway construction and repair, said that’s a bad option.

Finally there’s the fact that Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, is withholding his support for the budget — any budget — until he gets a vote on his plan to give those assaulted and abused as children more time to file civil suits against their attackers.

Meanwhile, time is slipping away: The state is less than six weeks away from the new fiscal year.

What’s worse is that, unlike the federal government which can approve a “continuing resolution” to keep the doors open, there is no similar provision in Arizona law if there is no spending plan by July 1.

Fann said she’s not worried.

“This is not new,” she said Tuesday.

“We do have members every year that say, ‘I’m not voting on the budget unless I get X,’” Fann continued. “We just have to work through that.”

That opens the door to compromises where adjustments are made to the plan that was unveiled Monday.

But that potentially emboldens others to make similar requests, particularly as there really aren’t a lot of votes to spare.

In the Senate, there are at least five Republicans who have said there are potential deal-killers in the budget. But there are just 17 Republicans in the 30-member chamber, meaning Fann has to corral at least 16 of them.

The House presents an even tighter problem for Bowers: A loss of just one of his 31 Republicans leaves him without a working majority.

Pinal plans to consolidate services helping those released from jail

CASA GRANDE — Pinal County is planning to consolidate in one place several services aimed to help offenders transition out of jail.

The county’s Adult Probation Department is working with several stakeholders to bring their services under one roof for individuals getting out of jail and prison.

The Integrated Outpatient Office will open next week at 1667 N. Trekell Road in Casa Grande and provide a number of financial, medical and behavioral health services. The goal is to streamline delivery of services that can help prevent individuals from committing more crimes.

Rod McKone, Pinal County’s chief adult probation officer, said integrating services and care is the most effective treatment for helping individuals released from the justice system.

“It is our belief that involvement in the criminal justice system can be a destabilizing factor in someone’s life,” McKone told PinalCentral. “We also believe that we can overcome this by integrating and effectively delivering behavioral and physical health treatment.”

Agencies involved in the office include the Pinal County Attorney’s Office, Pinal Sheriff’s Office, Arizona Department of Corrections, the state’s Medicaid office, Arizona@Work and Arizona Complete Heath.

The office is modeled after similar programs operating in Yuma, Pima and Maricopa counties. A grand opening ceremony for Casa Grande’s office will be held at 9:30 a.m. on May 30.

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CG council approves 50% cut in water fees for Evergreen Irrigation
 Haas  / 

CASA GRANDE — The City Council approved cutting the rate for the Evergreen Irrigation District in half — going from $14.50 to $7.25 monthly.

Monday’s 6-0 approval with Councilwoman Mary Kortsen absent came after a study session last month in which a number of residents of the historic neighborhood voiced concerns over poor outflow from the irrigation system. During the study session, city staff first proposed the 50 percent cut for the residents using the well in a system that began operating in 1928.

“I feel that this is a good, fair, temporary solution,” Councilman Matt Herman said. “When we first voted on those pumps, it was suppose to flow a lot more than what it actually is producing now.”

According to city staff documents, the current system delivers about 100 gallons per minute compared to the maximum system capacity of 300 gallons a minute.

As a result, the number of users in the neighborhood, which is located to the east and north of City Hall, has dropped from 63 to 14.

“I’m in favor of this,” Councilman Bob Huddleston said. “It seems fair but what is our next point? We have to fix this long term.”

City Manager Larry Rains answered Huddleston’s question by saying city staff is currently working on recommendations and is anticipating bringing back some proposals to the council later.

“We are working on another meeting with several of the residents … so I would say June or July (coming back to the council).”

Some of the options that were brought up during April’s study session include leaving the system as it is. It recently generated $13,318 in fees but cost the city $26,507. The others were having the citizens take over the operation or drilling a new well at a cost anywhere between $200,000 and $700,000.