PHOENIX — Editor's Note: The above video is from coverage of early voting in Arizona.
As the coronavirus pandemic gripped the United States this spring, civil unrest bubbled over after the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis Police.
Floyd's death led to protests across the U.S. and calls for criminal justice reform were amplified.
For Arizona voters who feel there should be changes within the criminal justice system, there are many local races for positions that shape and support the criminal justice system.
The county sheriff position comes with a lot of power. Sheriffs are elected, unlike police chiefs who are usually appointed, and control law enforcement in areas where city police or other law enforcement agencies do not have jurisdiction.
“Our sheriffs control the county law enforcement and it impacts our daily lives in so many ways, regular policing, in some places school policing, they conduct evictions, they have discretion on when and how they evict people,” Losmin Jimenez of Advancement Project, a civil rights organization working with Phoenix-based Puente Human Rights Movement, explained.
Sheriffs also control the jail or jails in their county. This includes managing the inmate population, living conditions in the facilities and service programs.
“There is a lot of power that sheriffs have and people don’t realize that and that’s on the ballot this year,” Jimenez said.
Bradley Bartos, University of Arizona government and public policy assistant professor, explained in most cases unless a sheriff commits a crime there is little accountability or oversight for the position, unless voters vote them out.
Learn about the candidates for sheriff across Arizona. Enter your address to pinpoint your county:
The county attorney is the chief prosecutor in the county.
The county attorney and their staff decide whether to charge those accused of crimes, draw up plea deals and present cases at trials.
“The ACLU of Arizona fundamentally believes that county attorneys are the most powerful actors in the criminal legal system. They have the most power to determine who is going to prison and for how long,” Analise Ortiz, campaign strategist at the ACLU of Arizona, said.
The county attorney also has the discretion to prosecute local law enforcement officers in use of force cases, even though they often work together on criminal cases.
“It certainly adds to the complicated relationships between those two because they are related to each other and in most criminal proceedings they work together to gather evidence,” Bartos explained.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is one of the largest prosecutorial agencies in the country. There are more than 900 full-time employees who serve the nearly 4 million citizens of the county.
The ACLU surveyed Maricopa County Attorney candidates on a range of criminal justice issues. See how the candidates responded here.
Learn more about the candidates with the 12 News Ballot Guide:
Arizona judges for the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Superior Court are selected by public committees and appointed by the governor, according to the Arizona Supreme Court.
In most counties, municipal judges and city magistrates are usually appointed.
Once they are appointed, voters choose to retain or reject them.
Judges have many different responsibilities within the criminal justice system. One being, the power to hand down sentences that align with Arizona’s sentencing guidelines for crimes.
“It is really the place where judges have latitude. It is much harder to impose one’s personal beliefs on a guilty or not guilty decision...Sentencing guidelines have a minimum and maximum range, not always a minimum for felony offenses, and judges can choose where in that range they feel is appropriate given the aggravating and mitigating factors presented in court or factors that make the crime more or less egregious,” Bartos said.
Research judges in your county with the Judicial Performance Review.
Mayors and other city leaders
The top cop in local cities are not usually elected. They are appointed and approved by either the mayor, another city official or city council members.
It is local elected officials that have authority over the police chief. They can also implement policies and approve committees that oversee the police department.
The mayor and city council members can also impose local laws and ordinances.
These elected positions have a direct impact on how laws are created and enforced, as well as, how alleged violators are held accountable. However, there are other candidate races and issues on Arizona ballots that have other connections to how justice is carried out in the state.
“Voting is power. It is a fight for people. This is the one way we can participate in our democracy,” Jimenez said.
Enter your address to learn more about the candidates on your ballot: