Democratic candidates running for Pima County Attorney are united in opposition to the death penalty and to prosecuting low-level nonviolent drug users.
It was a rebuke of the policies of current County Attorney Barbara LaWall, whose harsh policies against minor drug users and in favor of the death penalty have dominated the office led for 24 years by LaWall.
They spoke as LaWall sat silently in the front row of a recent forum of Marana Dems and Friends, organized by Edlynne Sillman. The candidates for Pima County’s top prosecutor are:
- Laura Conover is a bilingual criminal defense lawyer and victim advocate in Tucson. She has been an attorney for 15 years and previously worked as a public defender. Click for more info.
- Jonathan Mosher is the Chief Criminal Deputy of the Pima County Attorney’s Office. He has been an attorney for 25 years and a prosecutor for the last 15 years. Mosher has tried 100 major felony cases. Click for more info.
- Mark Diebolt is a Deputy Pima County Attorney for 23 years. He personally prosecuted more than 320 violent criminal trials. Click for more info.
The County Attorney (prosecutor) is a highly-important official, who decides what activities are prosecuted, who is charged for a felony versus a misdemeanor, and how the office – which takes up ⅔ of the entire county budget – is run. The County Attorney sets policy for 70 criminal prosecutors.
Mosher and Conover expressly opposed private prisons. Diebolt said, “there is no difference as county attorney whether the state pays for public or private prison.”
The state has three privately-operated prisons in Kingman, Florence, and Phoenix. Run by GEO Group, the prisons have brutal, dangerous conditions where the company saves money by cutting medical care. Conover said the Florence prison keeps temperatures near freezing so that inmates don’t get body odor.
Conover calls for Reform
Conover and Mosher are both running as reform candidates. Diebolt is running an old-school tough-on-crime campaign saying, “I will go after the bad guys and hold them responsible for what they’ve done.”
Conover calls for “meaningful and responsible reform,” saying, “I believe the time is now to bring in an attorney from outside the agency to usher in this reform.”
Her targets for reform are the bail system, which keeps poor people in jail who can’t afford to pay, and the state Department of Corrections, which warehouses more people for non-violent drug offenses than all violent crimes combined. She would also establish a financial crimes unit in the prosecutor’s office.
“Every time you put a felony on someone, you have destabilized their home for life and destabilized their family for two generations. We do this when we focus on low-level drug offenders. We need to focus on financial crimes. We’ve rolled out the welcome mat to scam and fraud in the community. These calls harm our parents and grandparents. We can borrow talent from the civil unit to create a financial crimes unit. We don’t care about credit, we’ll prepare a case with responsible reform, and we’ll collaborate with the feds. This is what smart reform looks like, and that’s why I’ve been studying it my entire life,” she says.
“Every agency must embrace change to stay healthy. What we’re facing is a culture that has built up over 40 years. We needed reform years ago. In 2019 the office broke the record by filing almost 7,000 felonies, including low-level nonviolent drug offenders. We’ve known that treatment is ⅓ of the cost of prison. It has been time for a change for some time.”
Mosher: Trial Dog for Reform
Mosher is a “trial dog” who has a record of headline-making violent crime convictions. He advocates expanding existing programs to divert low-level nonviolent drug users into rehab programs. He praised the Tucson Police Department’s Deflection program, where officers can refer addicts into treatment rather than jail.
He also applauded the county prosecutor’s Community Justice Boards, where criminal juveniles go before a neighborhood board for “restorative justice” and building competencies for youth. Mosher said the idea should be expanded into the school system.
He supports the county’s Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) Program, which enables drug-addicted criminal defendants to plead guilty and enter a residential, therapeutic community treatment system. He said the DTAP program should come into play at the beginning of a criminal case, and not at the end with a conviction.
Mosher said, “I adore Barbara LaWall, but I’m not her. I’m going to do things differently. I am not running the office.”
To the point, he said “private prisons must go” and that marijuana should be legal in Arizona (currently, mere possession is a felony, except for medical marijuana cardholders.) “Nobody is going to do a minute of jail for simple possession of marijuana,” he says.
He said LaWall, his immediate boss, has assigned him a death penalty case involving a serial child murderer. “I don’t make the decision about that,” he said.
“Let me be clear, we will not be seeking the death penalty if I’m elected to be county attorney. We’re getting rid of the death penalty. It’s tremendously wasteful of resources, can use resources in other ways,” Mosher said.
A Crime Fighter
Diebolt is campaigning on having the most experience prosecuting violent crimes of anyone in Arizona. A political newcomer, his remarks were brief, and he asked the moderator when the debate would be over.
“Violence is where we need to pay attention,” he said. “This includes guns in the wrong hands, causing 50-70 homicides in a year in the county, and also drive-by shootings and aggravated assault. I can recognize people who need prosecutorial attention by looking at what they are doing. Violent crime is what we need to focus on.”
Regarding domestic violence, he said, “Violence is violence, whether it’s against a family member or a stranger. When domestic violence escalates to a felony, we take a lot of cases trial. I’ve been there for 23 years, and I identify people who are a danger to the community. This is no different from identifying domestic abusers.”
He added that he opposed “spending millions and millions and millions of dollars on the death penalty.”
He also opposes sending low-level nonviolent drug abusers to prison. “We get them when they have ¼ gram of meth on them and it’s their fourth time. You try to get them into treatment. I don’t know how many will go voluntarily to treatment. Can we force them? Some say ‘I’ll go to prison before I go to treatment.’ Prison is easy, real life is hard. What is the cost of incarceration versus treating? I don’t know. We should take the costs of jail, police officers and detectives, and spend it on something else.”
“What bothers me, a lot of these people are just using drugs. A percentage of these people are not working. They are stealing, selling drugs, and breaking into cars. If you let them out of jail you run the risk of them finding drugs again and getting high for the day. Should you spend long periods of time in jail? No. What are the cops supposed to do with them? They’ll arrest them and take them to jail. But we can charge them with a misdemeanor so they don’t have to go to jail.”
The Democratic primary is on August 4, 2020.