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Arizona’s prison population declines by 11% during pandemic
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PHOENIX — The number of inmates in Arizona’s prisons has declined 11% since the start of the pandemic, reflecting a slowdown in the state’s court system that has held far fewer criminal jury trials over the last year as it took steps to prevent the coronavirus from spreading at courthouses.

Corrections officials say they are seeing fewer sentenced inmates being sent to prison from counties and fewer revocations of probation and community-supervision releases that would send people back behind bars. Defense lawyers say people charged with crimes are reluctant to accept plea offers out of fear that they might be exposed to COVID-19 if they were sentenced to Arizona’s prisons, where 31% of inmates have tested positive over the course of the pandemic and where 50 inmates have either been confirmed or suspected to have died from the virus.

Pima County hasn’t held a criminal jury trial since March 2020 and has called them off through next month. Maricopa County went a few months in 2020 without criminal trials, but it resumed them during the fall in limited numbers, because it has a small number of courtrooms that are equipped with plexiglass barriers and spacious enough to allow jurors to be distanced. Pinal County resumed in-person hearings June 1.

“The entire system is slowing down,” said Pima County Public Defender Joel Feinman.

In the four years before the pandemic, Arizona’s prison population hovered around 42,000. It started dropping in March and stood at 37,224 on Friday, according to corrections records.

While at least 300 non-violent inmates have been released from country jails in Arizona over the last year in a bid to lower virus risks, the state has refused calls for early releases of prisoners as a prevention measure.

Corrections officials say it’s difficult to say whether the state will have roughly 42,000 inmates some time after the pandemic ends. But lawyers and officials who work in county criminal justice systems said they believe the numbers of will creep back up.

“Everything that I have seen contributing to the decline is based on temporary things, so I think this is temporary,” said Christine Jones, a trial supervisor in the Maricopa County Office of the Public Defender.

More than half of Arizona’s 15 counties also have seen decreases in the number of inmates in their jails.

The jail population in Maricopa County, which operates the largest county jail system in Arizona, has had a 24% decrease in its jail population, from 7,100 in December 2019 to about 5,400 this week.

The most significant factor in lowering the county’s jail population has been police agencies that are citing and releasing people for certain nonviolent offenses, rather than booking, in an attempt to limit their contact with jails during the pandemic, said Sheriff Paul Penzone.

Penzone said his office is examining data to determine whether the cite-and-release approach taken during the pandemic will have any effects on crime rates and to examine the financial savings from having fewer people locked up.

While acknowledging that some offenders still need to be imprisoned, Pima County Attorney Laura Conover, a newly elected prosecutor who believes the state should rely on prison far less, said the decline in the prison population offers a chance to consider whether the state wants to keep so many people locked up.

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, whose office didn’t hold a felony trial for three months last year but has since resumed, said her office is already working with others in the legal system to reduce the backlog.

Polk said the Arizona Supreme Court’s suspension of a speedy-trial rule is set to expire at the end of March, meaning her office needs to be prepared to take a number of cases to trial unless the rule suspension is extended.

“You can’t stop arresting people and you can’t neglect public safety,” Polk said. “And you when you arrest somebody, there are a series of things in the courtroom that have to occur. We have managed to do it.”

State prisons and some county jails in Arizona have been hard hit by the virus.

More than 11,000 inmates in Arizona’s prisons have tested positive for the virus during the pandemic, leading to 31 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and another 19 deaths suspect to have been caused by the virus.

More than 2,600 people who work in state prisons also have tested positive. Corrections officials have declined to say whether any staff members have died from the virus.

In county jails across Arizona, more than 3,500 inmates and nearly 900 employees have tested positive since last spring.

Two Pima County jail inmates, a Maricopa County jail officer and a Camp Verde Detention Center employee in Yavapai County have died from the virus.

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Pinal gets federal help with vaccinations, runs out
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FLORENCE — Persons 65 and older have now been added to the 1B-1 early vaccination group in Pinal County, health officials said.

This has increased those eligible for vaccination from approximately 75,000 to around 130,000 individuals, County Health Director Tascha Spears said. As of Saturday, the county had received enough vaccines for, and had administered, close to 46,000.

More than 1,200 people received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine last week week at the Florence Community Center after a U.S. government team arrived to help expedite the shots.

Pinal County staff were notified that a team of federal vaccinators was headed this way, including physicians, nurses, paramedics and a pharmacist as part of a federal disaster medical service. Pinal County had been asking for a large vaccination site for some time now, Spears said.

“We were so grateful to hear we had 10 vaccinators and their commander here.”

Unfortunately, they didn’t bring any extra vaccine. “So that has become our dilemma and our challenge as always, and they clearly recognize that and are also taking that information back with them to FEMA (the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency),” Spears said.

Pinal County staff assembled the POD, or “point of dispensing,” site in less than 48 hours, “and that is by virtue of the partnerships” between Pinal County Emergency Management, local law enforcement, firefighters and the civilian community emergency response teams, or CERTs, from the city of Maricopa and the town of Florence, Spears said. “So it was really the community that pulled together. … (Federal team members) were so impressed that our partnerships were so strong that we could do this.”

More than 600 people were vaccinated in each of the first two full days the clinic was open, and Spears said they planned to give out the county’s last available vaccines on Friday.

When the county receives its next shipment of vaccine, the federal team will be gone. “We have asked for another team to replace them, and we have asked for support services,” Spears said. She added she would like to continue to use the Florence Community Center as a vaccination site.

“We are so grateful to the town of Florence and the leadership for assisting immediately, on the weekend, allowing us to set this up and helping us every step of the way,” Spears said. The community center has also hosted COVID-19 tests for some time, and the clinic worked to keep those patients strictly separate from those receiving the vaccine.

“The folks in Pinal County have done just a great job organizing,” said vaccinator Wes Wallace, from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “It’s just a very efficient operation and it’s helped us to see a lot of folks quickly.”

Members of this particular Disaster Medical Assistance Team, or DMAT, came primarily from North Carolina. The team members were in Florence as part of a two-week mission away from their regular jobs, according to Russell McNamee, acting deputy commander for the team.

Jim Gervase of Erie, Pennsylvania, a retired pharmacist on the team, said, “all these people on the (Pinal) county health department are tremendous. … It made it easy for us to help them, because they know what they’re doing.”

Another vaccinator from North Carolina, “Dr. Ted,” who declined to give his full name, said he had met “all kinds of cool people” receiving vaccinations. “I’ve learned a lot about pickleball and equestrianism and just the geography of the Southwest. There’s some amazing folks that live and spend time out here.”

He said the clinic started up slowly on Feb. 9, allowing the team to “figure out what all the kinks were.” They then began giving more than 600 shots a day, “and it’s been absolutely fascinating.

“The cool thing about it is this is actually the best kind of medicine you can do as far as a return-on-investment. This is prevention.” Dr. Ted said his regular job is emergency medicine, and “that’s the other end of the game where it’s a lot harder to get a good result.

“So the more people we can get in and get vaccinated, the better overall response we’re going to see as far as this entire COVID-19 pandemic is concerned.”

The pharmacies listed on the Pinal Covid Vaccine location webpage are now receiving federal allocations of vaccine shipped directly to them. These were chosen by their corporate offices.

On Monday, Pinal County health officials reported 75 new cases but no additional deaths from the virus. That brings the county totals to 44,795 positive cases since the pandemic began with 709 deaths.

Arizona health officials reported 1,338 new COVID-19 cases on Monday as the state approaches 800,000 cases and 15,000 deaths since the pandemic began.

The state did not report any new deaths Monday, but the fatality numbers tend to be light on Mondays following a weekend lag.

The state is likely to surpass both benchmarks of 800,000 cases and 15,000 deaths on Tuesday or Wednesday.

The state has reported 798,608 cases and 14,978 deaths thus far.

Health officials say the coronavirus remains widespread across the state, but the surge that made Arizona the nation’s hot spot last month is receding.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

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Wildflower season not expected to be robust this year
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CASA GRANDE — Those who look forward to the burst of yellow, orange, blue and purple blanket of blooms that pop up each spring throughout the area might be disappointed with the 2021 wildflower season.

Thanks to a dry fall and winter, wildflowers across the region are not expected to be plentiful this year.

Wildflowers are already beginning to bloom in and around Picacho Peak State Park but only a few small poppies have emerged, said Michelle Thompson, public information officer for Arizona State Parks.

“This is not going to be a banner year for wildflowers,” she said. “With the dry winter and the last two years being pretty good, we are not seeing many blooms out there.”

Wildflowers that have bloomed in Picacho Peak State Park are harder to find this year.

“Picacho Peak has a few very small poppies that are hidden in the wetter areas, like under other shrubs. We’re not expecting it to be any more robust,” Thompson said.

Picacho Peak State Park is one of the first of the desert state parks to bloom each season.

For the past two years, an abundance of blooming wildflowers attracted thousands of people to area state parks.

Last year, the area saw the best bloom in 15 years, which attracted a record number of visitors to state parks.

As the weather warms, blooms will begin to emerge at the higher elevations with parks near Oracle and Sedona seeing flowers later in the season and lasting well into the summer.

Because there was little rain between October and January, this season’s wildflower seeds did not have a chance to germinate, the Arizona State Parks website says.

“But the desert is resilient and the occasional Mexican Gold Poppy can be spotted in areas where moisture retention is increased, such as underneath shrubs and trees,” the website says.

In Pinal County, Thompson said the desert wildflower season typically begins when bladderpods begin to bloom in February.

They are followed by brittlebush, Mexican poppies, lupine, chuparosa, globemallow and then other various cacti species.

But while spring 2021 might not produce the abundance of wildflowers for Picacho Peak, bloom enthusiasts willing to drive might find a better showing in nearby areas that received more rain than Pinal County.

“Catalina State Park may see an OK wildflower season, since they got a bit more rain, but they also have the wildfire areas to contend with,” Thompson said.

Those planning to visit state parks to hike, camp or see flowers should keep a few rules and safety tips in mind, Thompson said.

“We are still reducing capacity to increase social distancing, so it’s best to check in advance or anticipate temporary closures when the parks get full,” she said. “Parks like Catalina and Picacho are already seeing large numbers of visitors and having to shut down to maintain that social distancing. We also ask people to please be responsible and pick up any trash they bring in, including face masks, wear masks in all park buildings, stay hydrated and not pick the flowers.”

Throughout the season, wildflower updates will be posted on the Arizona State Parks website, https://azstateparks.com/wildflowers.

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Roberts' 'violent protest' bill passes House committee
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PHOENIX — A House panel voted Monday to give police more options to arrest people at demonstrations approving legislation that foes contend will be used to target minorities.

HB 2309 would create a new crime of “violent or disorderly assembly.’’ It would apply to those who, along with seven or more person intends to engage in conduct constituting a riot and causes damage or property or injury to someone else. The 8-5 party-line vote in the Republican-controlled Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee moves it along to the full House.

“This bill is going to infringe on the right of free assembly by intimidating people away from exercising their rights out of fear of criminal penalty,’’ said Rhonda Neff, a lawyer speaking for Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice. Its members represent defendants in criminal cases.

Neff said the Phoenix Police Department and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office already are using existing laws to target what she said have been legitimate protests.

“And it has been largely politically motivated against people’s stance of law enforcement,’’ she said.

Marilyn Rodriguez of the American Civil Liberties Union went a step farther, saying the measure “allows police and prosecutors to target black and brown communities who speak out against the brutality they face at the hands of police each and every day.’’

Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, the author of the legislation, does not deny it is designed to have some deterrent effect.

“We have to be stronger and give anybody that chooses to exercise their First Amendment right a moment of pause before they decide to not peacefully assemble,’’ he told Capitol Media Services in a separate interview. But Roberts said anyone who is engaged in a peaceful protest has nothing to fear.

Neff, however, said that’s not the way it would work. She said it adds new penalties to “disorderly assembly.’’

“Disorderly assembly is a very broad term and is subject to abuse just on its own,’’ Neff said.

“There are innocent actors that get tied up into this as well where one protester or another may engage in some form of violent assembly (with) other people around them,’’ she said. “And then the entire protest is deemed a disorderly assembly and all the people end up being punished due to innocent conduct.’’

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he doesn’t read the bill that way. He said someone can be arrested only if he or she engages in the existing crimes of unlawful assembly or riot “and then does extra stuff.’’

Unlawful assembly, Kavanagh said, is what happens when police have declared it that, requiring everyone to leave.

“If you’re staying at an unlawful assembly or a riot, you’re not an innocent person,’’ said Kavanagh, a retired police officer. “You’re somebody breaking the law.’’

And Kavanagh scoffed at the idea that enacting this kind of law would suppress free speech.

“The people who are suppressing free speech are the people who are engaging in unlawful assembly and riot,’’ he argued.

“Time after time, over the past year, we have seen otherwise lawful assemblies be disrupted by violent behavior, especially in cities like Seattle and Portland,’’ Kavanagh said. “Violent people hijacked lawful assemblies and that causes the lawful people to have to stop exercising their First Amendment and flee because they don’t want to be hurt or arrested.’’

But Rep. Melody Hernandez, D-Tempe, said her experience is that these kinds of laws tend to work only one way.

“We have one system that allows individuals that breached the (state) Capitol during my new orientation to go unpunished,’’ she said.

That refers to a group that rushed into the state House on Dec. 3, bypassing security, chanting and shouting. That was an effort to convince Arizona lawmakers to declare the results of the November election void.

In that same group was Jake Angeli, the horn-wearing self-proclaimed QAnon shaman who a month later was arrested at the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. There were no arrests.

Hernandez said those who have incited violence in Arizona also have gone unpunished.

“We have another system of justice that harshly targets and penalizes people of color,’’ she said.

Neff said there are other flaws in what Roberts has proposed.

One requires that anyone arrested under this new crime would have to be held in jail for at least 12 hours.

There is an escape clause of sorts which allows release if a magistrate concludes the person is “not likely to immediately resume the criminal behavior based on the circumstances of the arrest and the person’s previous criminal history.’’ But Neff said that’s largely meaningless, as defendants are largely unrepresented at initial appearances and usually cannot speak.

“That presumptively is a violation of the Fourth Amendment’’ which protects against illegal seizure,’’ she said.

Roberts said he is considering altering his bill when it gets to the full House to remove that provision. He also said he will scrap another section which says anyone convicted of this new crime is forever ineligible for state and local benefits, including public housing and state-provided scholarships and tuition waivers, and forfeits the right to ever be employed by state or local government.

“I believe there should be repercussions for you actions,’’ Roberts said. “However, I also believe someone should have the opportunity to redeem themselves and get back on the right track and not have prior aspects counted against them in certain regards.’’