Billion-Dollar Bad Guys

"No turning around, ladies," says a beefy detention officer to the seven women slumped in plastic chairs.

Behind them, 30 disheveled, sleepy men file into a bleak chamber hidden in the bowels of Madison Street Jail. They fall into rows of more plastic chairs, then all stand briefly as Commissioner George Bonsall enters the makeshift courtroom.

It's the 3 p.m. session of Initial Appearance court. Three dozen county citizens arrested within the past 24 hours are about to find out if they'll go home or stay in jail until time for their trials. Four times a day, every day, the court processes dozens of prisoners; more than 120,000 get hauled into the county's lockup each year.

Today there is a steady procession of the poor, the venal, the stupid. All but six have been arrested on nonviolent offenses. Some have violated probation orders. Others have failed to pay fines on traffic tickets. Fourteen have been busted for possession of illegal drugs for use or sale. Some, it seems clear, are habitual petty criminals, and have failed to appear on previous charges or have defied court orders repeatedly.

Bonsall sets relatively modest bail amounts for several. Few, however, appear able to pay them.

Robert Franklin, a balding man who looks to be in his 40s, steps up as the commissioner reads the facts of his case.

He's been arrested for failing to appear for his trial on driving with a suspended license. Franklin leans closer. He whips his head back and forth, as if there is something stuck in his ear that he can't get out. Twice, he asks Bonsall to speak up and repeat himself.

Bonsall wants to know why Franklin didn't show up in court when he was supposed to. Franklin leans back and shakes his head in a fluster. "My mind was a blank," he says, sounding as if that is his general condition.

Bonsall sets his bail at $500.
Like Franklin, 27 of the prisoners end up staying in jail; only nine are released by Bonsall on this day. The rest join thousands of other pretrial detainees in crowded cells; 7,000 inmates are now crammed into facilities designed for 5,300. Seventy percent of those have not been convicted of a crime, but are simply awaiting trial.

In November, voters in Maricopa County will be asked to approve nearly $1 billion in new taxes for new jails and other improvements. If they don't, proponents warn, the county will have to release dangerous prisoners.

"It is a straight, uncomplicated issue," Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Jan Brewer said in June. "Do we want these thugs in jail, or do we want them in our neighborhoods?"

In the weeks before the election, the proponents of the tax will promote a frightening image of a system so jammed full with violent offenders, adding a new inmate will require letting another go free. Add a thug, spring a thug.

Thugs like Robert Franklin.
From judges to the board of supervisors to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the voices of the county's political and justice leaders have united to convince voters that new jails are the best solution to overcrowding. The 1U5-cent increase in the sales tax would raise as much as $900 million over the next nine years. With that money, the county plans to renovate existing jails, make needed changes to the way cases and inmates move through the justice system, and build new jails both downtown and at the Durango complex.

Voters' pamphlets explaining Propositions 400 and 401 contain 14 arguments in favor of the tax. There are none against.

This fall's political campaign is likely to be as one-sided. Citizens for a New Jail will soon have raised more than $200,000 for the upcoming campaign, says co-chairman Tom Irvine.

Tax opponents, however, have yet to organize. They will have to bring together an unlikely coalition of activists who traditionally oppose any tax increase and those who oppose new jails for other, very different reasons.

Normally, convincing Maricopa County voters not to raise their own taxes would not be too difficult. But Arizona State University criminal justice professor Dennis Palumbo knows that the tax proponents have an advantage because most voters have had little contact with, or understanding of, the county's jails. Palumbo opposes the tax and is a leading critic of Arizona's sky-high incarceration rate.

He cites two recent studies that disclosed surprising information about the county jails:

* Short-time, nonviolent offenders make up the vast majority of the jails' population.

* Two-thirds of sentenced inmates, many of whom reside in Tent City, are in jail on misdemeanors, not for violent crimes or even felonies.

* Crowding has resulted from a marked increase in the number of pretrial detainees as well as increases in the length of their stays as courts take more time to sift through cases.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega