Diego Rodriguez, a Democrat running for Attorney General, spoke at the January 10, 2022, meeting of Democrats of Greater Tucson. He grew up in Wyoming and lived there till he was 18. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame and then moved to Tucson from 1992 to 2004. He graduated from the Arizona College of Law in 1995. He started practicing as a Pima County Attorney and worked his way up to prosecuting first-degree homicides. After that, he opened his private civil law practice. He lives in Laveen, Arizona.
The following is an edited transcript of his remarks.
Fighting voter suppression
One of the reasons I’m running for Arizona state Attorney General is because over the past three years when I was a member of the state legislature, I saw just how poorly the current attorney general was serving the people of Arizona and how many problems we have in our legal system.
The information and insight that I gained by being in the state legislature helped me in fighting issues like voter suppression and election laws, fighting issues like reform within our criminal justice system and within our prison system, and fighting issues, for example, preserving woman’s right to access safe and legal abortion.
I respect my two colleagues who are running for that office as well. But I can tell you I’m the only former prosecutor out of the three of us. In addition to that, I’m the only person who has had to sit down with the victim and their family members and talk to them about the effect of being a crime victim. That is something that Republicans like to attack Democrats on year after year is they accused us of being soft on crime. But that argument isn’t going to fly against me, because I’ve sat down with the families of homicide victims.
[Democratic candidate] Kris Mayes, to my knowledge she’s not a practicing attorney. Wouldn’t you want to have somebody who, when it comes time to hold people responsible for attacking our democracy for engaging in fraud and misrepresentation using the lies to raise money — you need a qualified former prosecutor who knows how the system works, knows where the problems lie and how to solve those issues.
The Republicans take the easy way out, which they usually do. And they accused Democrats of not being concerned about public safety. But I can tell you that it’s not going to be the case. It’s not going to fly. So I defy anyone on the other side, or even on our side, to stack up their record as a prosecutor against mine.
Immoral private prisons
What are my priorities on day one? I’ll tell you right now, protecting our democracy is job number one. And the attorney general absolutely can play a role in that just by simply saying that as attorney general, we put everyone on notice that if you are going to attempt to suppress the vote in Arizona or intimidate voters in Arizona, we are not going to tolerate that.
The second thing that the attorney General’s office can do is get involved with fixing the inequities in our legal system. We have some obvious issues involving law enforcement and how it relates to various communities in our state.
We also have issues with how people are treated within the Department of Corrections. The department is a $1.4 billion agency that answers to no one. Recently we heard that the department will transfer over 2,700 inmates to a private prison. We will pay a private prison company $85 a day to house inmates that could be transferred to other state-run prisons that only cost $71 a day. So that tells you that there’s a level of corruption within our prison system and within the Republican party because they’re allowing these transfers and contracts — so that money can then be recycled back into supporting Republican candidates who support private prisons.
Private prisons right now are being used as a conduit. What’s happening is immoral. Private corporations should not be involved in making profits from incarceration. It’s immoral. The state has an ethical and a moral duty to make sure that the punishment that we, as a society, agree that someone should receive.
It’s a system that is now rapidly becoming about profit. When you have private prisons, they’re just trying to figure out how to increase the profit margin. This is why in this latest contract, the state of Arizona is guaranteed a 90% occupancy rate for these people who are being transferred, even though we can transfer them to state-owned prisons right now, and it would cost less than private prisons. Those corporations also predominantly contribute to Republicans, and it’s because those Republicans support these types of contracts.
But the statistics will all tell you it’s more expensive to house people in private prisons and to use private third-party medical providers than it is to have the state do it. And again, it’s done for the sake of profit, and it’s an immoral policy that we should not support and we should not have in Arizona.
That’s the kind of thing that the attorney general should be looking at and take leadership on reforming the many dysfunctions in the department of corrections. I’ve seen it as the state legislator. I’ve seen that, how they miscalculate time for folks, I’ve seen how they waste hundreds of millions of dollars without any accountability.
Victims of child abuse
Quite frankly, folks, many of the issues that affect our criminal justice system also affect our communities in many ways. I’m going to now talk about what we can do on the first day is start looking out for our children. Right now, we have there are as many as 6,000 to 9,000 Arizona children put into the system as victims of child abuse and child neglect. Every year, we know that number is actually low. We know it’s low because that’s generally an under-reported crime or an under-reported issue because it is sometimes, it’s not exclusively crime. You just have families in crisis, but it is under-reported.
As an attorney general, we can organize folks around the idea that we need to take better care of our kids, both within our public schools and within our communities. Many of these kids also happen to have parents who are involved in the criminal justice system. Take a system like we have in Arizona, where you have people sentenced to overly harsh criminal sentences. That money is then being put into the department of corrections, and those children are then put into the foster care system.
We haven’t had a real attorney general doing this job since Terry Goddard left and, rest in peace, Grant Woods was also an attorney general who looked at things in that same way. So it’s incredibly important that we focus our efforts on improving the office by electing the most qualified candidate. I’m telling you right now, folks, that’s me. I have the experience and the knowledge both through my career and as a legislator to take on these issues and get them done.
This election is not about who’s won a statewide election previously as a Republican, which what, which. Kris Mays has won a statewide election before, but it was as a Republican. And in fact, she was a Republican up until 2019.
When I was facing down to Kelly Townsend, Michelle Ugenti-Rita, Mark Finchem, and those other folks on their side who want to attack our democracy, I’ve already had these fights with these folks on the floor and in committee.
I think it’s particularly important that the people of Arizona understand if there is an officer in a shooting that involves an officer in, let’s say Mojave county, that should be looked at the same way as it is in Cochise County or Pima County or Maricopa County.
We can’t have different systems of justice across our state that undermine people’s trust in the system. And we need to have predictability and transparency in this process. So, I would, as Attorney General, go to each county attorney and say, let’s sit down, let’s create a new system of how to investigate these claims.
So, the first example I saw during my term, a bill that was clearly unconstitutional was Travis Grantham’s bill to exempt teenagers from the minimum wage. As an attorney, we all stood up and told them, saying, “Hey, you can’t do this. You’re violating equal protection. This is unconstitutional. You simply cannot do this.” They didn’t listen to us then. But what happened, I thought, was very interesting is that once Mark Burnham issued an opinion telling them that it was unconstitutional, they did stop.
So the arguments I was making on the floor came out to be pretty much what the Supreme court reaffirmed in their opinion. So again, the attorney general, if the person is inclined to do so and has the experience and the knowledge to do so, can absolutely head off a lot of this stuff in the past.
Abolish the death penalty
I think we should abolish the death penalty. Clearly, it’s a waste of resources. It isn’t applied fairly. I’ve been a prosecutor, and I’m still a criminal defense attorney. I can tell you systemic racism exists in the criminal justice system.
If you can see that point, you absolutely must concede that the application of the death penalty will also be affected by systemic racism and social-economic differences between the types of defendants who are charged in it. If you have more money, you will generally get an attorney who will keep you out of the death chamber.
There is a difference in America and the type of justice you receive based on how much money you have as a defendant to pay for your defense. That’s absolutely the case. So, I would abolish the death penalty, and we could switch it very easily. Switch it over to a choice between 25 years, but the chance of parole after 25 years and then life natural life would be the new sentence for first-degree murder in Arizona.
The issue is what can the attorney general to do to help local communities affect positive change. I can tell you; we do need to repeal preemption. The statute that exists took away the local municipalities’ ability to regulate things like the number of gas hookups for new buildings and plastic bags.
That should absolutely be repealed.
And suppose you think about the loss and costs incurred by these local jurisdictions in trying to deal with the existence of these plastic bags. In that case, there may also be a way to file a lawsuit along those lines, saying, look, you’re selling this product, and it’s causing real harm and costing this municipality money because you insist on selling this product.
I don’t believe the Republicans will support a repeal of the preemption law. But that doesn’t mean the Attorney General couldn’t file a lawsuit on behalf of the municipality to say, “we’re going to sue these companies that make these plastic bags because they’re not doing enough to mitigate the damaging effects that they have when they’re put into the environment .”
Restoring the Tucson gun buyback program
If you think about how the other side has treated abortion in the Texas law, right? What they’re trying to do is empower individual private citizens to bring these types of claims to determine the conduct that they’re trying to, they’re trying to prevent. But as an attorney, if you want to think creatively, I think a city could make a grant to an organization dedicated to reducing gun violence. And if that organization then decided to use that grant money to buy back weapons, I don’t think there’s anything that the legislature could do to prevent that.
One of the things we can do by reducing gun violence is making our communities safer. Still, it also helps Arizona because we have one of the highest rates of shootings that take place in conjunction with the history of domestic violence.
The last time I checked, we had the fourth-highest rate in the country. We’re not doing enough to reduce gun violence in Arizona.
“Gypsy Cops” and discrimination against minorities
Discrimination against minorities is one of the reasons why I would like to have accusations of police misconduct run through the attorney General’s office because they’re not treated the same way.
As the attorney general, I can play a role just by saying I will look at this. I’m going to the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board and say, “we need to fix this. We need to change this.” So if you asked me, I would like to completely replace the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which is the agency that certifies law enforcement officers in Arizona.
We don’t even have a statewide database that documents police misconduct. Different jurisdictions can research a given applicant and make sure that you don’t have “gypsy cops” who are hired, then they may engage in misconduct. They resign before they are disciplined so that they are not efficiently disciplined.
That leaves them free to apply to a different jurisdiction without being held accountable for their conduct and the misconduct they engaged in their previous agency. So, the attorney general needs to be part of the standardizing, the transparency and the accountability that needs to be put into a new system for monitoring law enforcement in Arizona.
Some people aren’t comfortable talking about systemic racism, but it does exist. As a person of color, I can tell you that I’ve experienced. I was profiled in Tucson when I was in law school. I got pulled over because I was driving a little too far north of River Road.
It’s an issue that takes leadership. We can just sit down with folks, where they see the head of a state agency who’s concerned about this issue has the documentation and the statistics to back it up and the experience to talk about it.
The power of prosecutors
The power that a prosecutor has is mind-boggling. The prosecutors are the most powerful party in the criminal justice system, more so than the judges. Moreover, they are vastly more powerful than anything in defense can a defense attorney because the judges are bound by the sentencing laws written back in the early nineties.
A lot of the outcome of a case is determined by the charging decision that the prosecutor makes. So, the prosecutor can draft a very open-ended plea that gives the judge a lot of discretion on how to make the sentencing choice, or the prosecutor can say, no, this is the only option we’re going to give you.
Are you going to go to prison for X number of years? Again, that is entirely within the prosecutor’s discretion to do that.
There is an outsized level of influence that prosecutors have. Our system is tilted too far to one side. We’re overly punitive, which is why Arizona has the fourth-highest rate of incarceration. We’re the fourth highest state in the country.
We don’t have parole anymore in Arizona. We only give incarcerated persons a 15% good time credit, whereas other states give as high as 50%. Arizona’s system is not designed to rehabilitate. I can tell you that it’s designed to incarcerate and punish.
We have an agency that spends $1.4 billion, and it cannot effectively rehabilitate the people who are incarcerated within it. I know that for a fact because I’ve had these conversations with folks when I was in the state legislature.
Not charging people for collecting ballots
Note: The Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich, indicted two Democratic Latinas for collecting ballots, using a law that has been declared unconstitutional.
Again, this goes back to the power that prosecutors have. If a prosecutor decides they don’t want to charge [ballot collection], that case doesn’t get charged. So as attorney general, you just completely walk into it very clear-mindedly and say, we’re not going to file charges on [ballot harvesting], and we’re going to dismiss these charges and. And we’re going to sit down and have a conversation with this lady explain to her in the application of state law, but we don’t need to create a criminal history for something like this.