The Arizona primary election will be held on August 30, 2016. Reproductive health care access has been under attack, both nationally and statewide, but Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona has endorsed candidates who have shown strong commitment to reproductive justice. To acquaint you with our endorsed candidates, we are running a series called “Meet Our Candidates.” In order to vote in the primary election, you must register to vote by August 1 — and can even register online. Make your voice heard in 2016!
[I]ncumbent Barbara LaWall is running for reelection to continue serving as Pima County Attorney — a position she has held for five terms since first being elected in 1996. She was the first woman to hold that office, and she has used her position to bring her vision for the Pima County Attorney’s Office to life. Earlier this year, in a television interview with Jim Nintzel, she said that when her predecessor retired, she ran to fill his seat so she could “engage the community and forge relationships with neighborhoods and schools and businesses.” This kind of community outreach could allow the prosecutor’s office to give children the resources they needed to make good life decisions, steering potential criminals down a more productive path. Just as preventive health care saves money and anguish down the road, so too do programs designed to prevent crime from flourishing.
“The primary element of human liberty is the freedom to control our own bodies, and a major aspect of that is the freedom to make our own medical decisions.”
Despite the improvements that have been implemented over the past two decades, Ms. LaWall says she’s not ready to retire. As she told Nintzel, “I am still very much engaged in this office. It is my calling and my passion … I have a few more ideas that I’d like to bring to the office, and I’m ready to keep on going.” In the below interview, she elaborates on some of the positive changes she has made as Pima County Attorney, as well as some of the ideas she plans to enact during her next term.
Her work as Pima County’s top prosecutor was recognized earlier this year, when the Arizona Women Lawyers Association presented her with the 2016 Sarah Herring Sorin Award — an award that was named in honor of Arizona’s first female attorney, and that was given to Ms. LaWall “in recognition of her long-time support and encouragement for the advancement of women in the legal profession.”
Ms. LaWall’s candidacy is endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, and on July 24, she kindly took the time to answer our questions about her record as Pima County attorney and her campaign for reelection.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Tucson. My grandparents on both sides were immigrants who came to this country to find the American dream. My parents were first generation Americans and the first in their families to graduate from high school. My dad was an auto parts salesman and my mom worked as a secretary on the airbase. My sister and I were the first generation to attend college.
I have been a public servant my entire life. My first career was as a public school teacher teaching high school English at TUSD high schools for several years. I left teaching and went to law school, believing a law degree would help me make a more profound difference in educational policy than just being a classroom teacher. I wanted to do a lot more to help youth in our community.
While I was in law school, my marriage dissolved and I found myself as a single mom struggling to get through law school and raise my daughter. I needed a job and took a position as a law clerk in the county attorney’s office. That job changed my life.
During law school, I participated in an internship program where third year law students are appointed to represent the State in Justice Court. I discovered that being a prosecutor was my calling and my passion.
After graduation and passing the Arizona Bar, I became a deputy county attorney and worked my way up through the office. I started as a line prosecutor and became a supervisor of various felony trial teams. I was promoted to manage the Criminal Division and the entire criminal prosecution function of the office as chief criminal deputy. Then I learned about budget, personnel, and administration as chief deputy of the office.
I have prosecuted every type of crime imaginable, from DUI to domestic violence, child abuse and molestation, burglary, robbery, assault, kidnapping, drive-by shooting, narcotics trafficking, sexual assault, and homicide. I have prosecuted thousands of cases and have tried more than 100 jury trials.
As a supervisor and chief criminal deputy, I was responsible for training and mentoring other prosecutors, for evaluating and making tough decisions about charging, declining, proceeding or dismissing prosecutions and whether to offer pleas or take cases to trial. As chief deputy, I was responsible for the overall administration of the office, including personnel matters and the office budget. After 20 years of working my way through the office, in 1996, I ran for office and was elected Pima County Attorney.
I have spent my entire legal career doing justice and protecting the public safety of this community by prosecuting the offenders who threaten and endanger us all. My policy has been to see that violent, dangerous, and seriously repetitive felony offenders wind up behind bars.
When I first became a prosecutor, victims had no rights. They had no right to be heard at sentencing or at hearings, no right to be present in the courtroom, and, in fact, they were excluded from the courtroom. They had no right to participate in the criminal justice process. They had no rights whatsoever. I have always been a fierce and passionate advocate for victims of crime, and am really proud of my participation at the very beginning in the successful fight for victims’ rights in Arizona.
As a prosecutor, and as a person, I have been forever altered and changed by the work I do, particularly by the thousands of victims I have met and served and on whose behalf I have relentlessly worked.
Serving victims of crime and being in a position to help them, to truly help, is a tremendous honor. Victims of crime have had their lives unalterably shattered and immutably changed by being victimized, and I am proud I get to fight on their behalf to see they get the justice they deserve.
I continue to advocate on their behalf and devote my office resources to ensuring that victims of crime are well served throughout the criminal justice process. I have created and implemented special programs in my office to assist and support crime victims at every level of the justice system, including misdemeanor, juvenile, and felony crime victims. I am very proud of the progress my office has made protecting victims of crime.
Because of my leadership, the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center for child victims of abuse and molestation was developed. I created the Tucson SafeBaby and Amber Alert programs, which later became state law. I established the Kids-In-Court and Courthouse Dogs programs. Through the Lock Up Your Gun and Communities Addressing Responsible Gun Ownership (CARGO) programs more than 78,000 free gunlocks have been distributed to firearm owners with children at home.
In the last two decades as the Pima County Attorney, I have implemented numerous special criminal justice and community programs that never existed before in the office.
Several of these programs are designed to help and assist individuals who commit crimes due to drug addiction and mental illness. I established the first Pima County Drug Court, and special diversion programs for adults, and created 18 unique neighborhood restorative justice Community Justice Boards for juveniles to help them avoid prosecution.
Six years ago, I developed a Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison program that provides residential treatment instead of prison to addicted prison-bound defendants. It has demonstrated a tremendous cost-savings (far less than half the cost of prison) and maintains a continuous success rate of 70 percent.
I recently obtained additional grants that expanded the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison Program — doubling its size — and provided expanded services to defendants in felony Drug Court and felony Mental Health Court.
Also, I recently obtained a planning grant to develop a collaborative misdemeanor problem-solving court to assist individuals who commit misdemeanor crimes due to addiction or mental illness or both.
I am also an active participant with the core planning group that obtained a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to reduce the Pima County Jail population and eliminate racial disparities.
I am proud of my leadership with all of these initiatives and my proven ability to collaborate and coordinate with community-based agencies as well as other agencies within the criminal justice system.
I have stood up for Planned Parenthood both personally and professionally in my position as County Attorney.
When the Pima County Board of Supervisors has been challenged repeatedly with regards to its allocation of funding to Planned Parenthood, my office provided the civil legal advice and representation to support the Board’s contributions to the fullest extent permitted by law.
When Planned Parenthood filed suit challenging the state’s ability to enforce a law that would have restricted abortion rights, I stood with Planned Parenthood — in contrast to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the other county attorney’s offices — and filed my own brief in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals publicly siding with the respondent abortion providers who challenged the constitutionality of the 20-week fetal pain ban. I took the position that the law was unconstitutional and should not be enforced, and was pleased when the position I took alongside Planned Parenthood was upheld by the court.
Since 2010, Arizona has spent more than $1 million defending unconstitutional abortion restrictions that have been blocked from taking effect. Most recently, the Legislature passed HB 2599, which lays the groundwork to kick Planned Parenthood out of AHCCCS, our state Medicaid program. If that happened, AHCCCS patients couldn’t choose Planned Parenthood for their preventive health care and birth control needs. In 2013 a similar bill has been overturned. What do you think about the resources that Arizona has spent defending these laws?
I am dismayed by the resources Arizona has ill-advisedly spent attempting to defend unconstitutional restrictions on abortions that have been approved by our state Legislature and signed into law by our governor.
As noted above, I am proud to have taken an official position in my capacity as Pima County Attorney in which I stood with Planned Parenthood and successfully challenged such unconstitutional legislation.
I am proud of my proven track record of successfully defending in the courts a woman’s constitutional right to choose.
Recently, Tucson Unified School District voted to include comprehensive sex education in their classrooms, but progress has been slow. Could we tap into Pima County public health funding to work within existing statewide law to improve sexuality education for our students?
As a former teacher and as a mother of a daughter who graduated from local public schools, I am a very strong advocate for comprehensive sex education in our public schools. I applaud Planned Parenthood’s support for this type of education. Moreover, I applaud Planned Parenthood’s efforts to facilitate funding for comprehensive sex education in our schools.
However, as Pima County’s attorney and the County Health Department’s civil legal advisor and representative, I am ethically prohibited from publicly advocating for any position the County or the County Health Department should take or how they should allocate their funding.
Accordingly, I am not at liberty to respond directly to this question insofar as it relates to exploring this particular funding mechanism.
Conflicts of interest arise on a fairly regular basis in the County Attorney’s Office because of Arizona’s structure in which our prosecutor’s office also serves as the civil attorney and legal advisor to the county government.
One of the complexities of my job is ensuring that my Office and I do not run afoul of the ethical rules adopted by the Arizona Supreme Court pertaining to how we are required to deal with these conflicts of interest.
On your website, you speak of the privilege of fighting for justice for victims of sexual assault. What progress has your office made in the handling of sexual assault cases, and are there any other changes you’d like to make?
One of the most important elements of progress my office has made in the handling of sexual assault cases is the successful lobbying I did, along with my office, to establish constitutional and statutory rights for victims in Arizona.
These rights ensure that victims of sexual assault are entitled to be informed about, to observe, and to participate in all court proceedings from initial appearance, to arraignment, to pretrial conferences, to trial, and beyond.
They have the right to provide input to the court with regards to whether the perpetrator will be released from jail pending trial, and the right to express how they have been impacted by the crime and can give their input at sentencing. They also have the constitutional right to refuse an interview.
Another of the most important elements of progress my office has made in the handling of sexual assault cases is the work I did in collaboration with others to envision, design, develop, and implement the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center (SACAC), which serves as a one-stop service center for child victims of sexual assault.
I am tremendously proud to have been the driving force behind the vision, funding, construction, and deployment of the SACAC. The SACAC is a child-friendly environment in which the forensic interviewer can conduct interviews of the victim with the prosecutor, the police and CPS social worker listening from the next room so that the victim does not have to be interviewed more than once.
One of two specially trained courthouse dogs is available to sit with and to comfort the victim while she or he explains the details of the horrible abuse. Child-sized examination tables and equipment, including a colposcope purchased with funds donated by my office and law enforcement, in rooms with child-friendly décor, are used by specially trained forensic nurses to conduct physical examinations and to collect physical evidence.
And stuffed animals and backpacks filled with supplies are available to children who wait in comfortable rooms with age-appropriate books, toys, and TV shows, with cozy furniture, while social workers determine where they will be taken for temporary custody.
Yet another element of progress my office has made in the handling of sexual assault cases is to establish a specialized prosecution Special Victims Unit (SVU) that handles sexual assault cases against women, children, and men who have been victimized.
My SVU prosecutors are specially trained to handle these cases, which are among the most complex and difficult to prosecute. The SVU prosecutors work tremendously well with our victims, alongside specially trained victim advocates who are there from the crime scene to the courtroom, literally holding the hands of victims, providing them with tissues and water as needed, and being a constant support.
We regularly target violent, dangerous, and predatory sex offenders for trial in order to obtain the full range of prison sentences possible. [For example], Caleb Soto Diaz, the Santa Cruz River rapist, sentenced to 45 years in DOC for his violent attack and rape of a female runner; Bryan Scott Graff sentenced to 84 years in prison for kidnapping and a violent sexual assault; Juan Salas-Perez sentenced to three life sentences for repeatedly sexually assaulting a victim between the time he was 8 and 10 years old; Gilbert Lopez Fimbres sentenced to 117 years in prison for the continuous sexual abuse of his 6-year-old granddaughter.
Additionally, I have specially trained detectives who work to track down witnesses to ensure that we can hold predatory offenders accountable at trial. My office works closely with and supports the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault, and we have an excellent working relationship with the forensic sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE) who conduct forensic sexual assault examinations and testify at trials.
Also, my office provides highly specialized training to law enforcement officers on matters relating to prosecuting and proving sexual assault cases, particularly the most difficult cases in which there is little corroborating evidence beyond the victim’s testimony.
Moreover, my office led the development of a specialized, formal multi-agency sex assault protocol for the handling of sexual assault cases in Pima County. (A copy of that protocol can be found on my office website.)
A sub-specialty in my Special Victims Unit is sex trafficking. I have prosecutors specially trained in handling these cases. I am proud to have hosted a three-day law enforcement training on sex trafficking for officers from across the state of Arizona, teaching them how to spot the signs an individual may be a victim of sex trafficking and what evidence could be used to prove charges against the perpetrator(s).
My office partners with the U.S. Attorney’s Tucson office prosecutors, as well as with federal, state, and local law enforcement officers on a Human Trafficking Task Force. I have provided public education forums on how to spot victims of sex trafficking and have facilitated the development of shelter that provides housing for victims of sex trafficking in Pima County.
One of the changes I intend to make in my next term as County Attorney is to increase my office’s leadership in connection with the interdiction of sex trafficking and the provision of services to sex trafficking victims.
Last year, my office prosecuted almost two dozen sex trafficking related cases. This is a serious problem in our community, and I am committed to obtaining the financial and human resources necessary to address it more comprehensively.
Why do you think it’s important that people make their own health care decisions?
Accessible and affordable comprehensive health care is absolutely a basic human right that must be made available to all. Respect for personal autonomy requires that each person is entitled to make his/her own health care decisions and have those health care decisions respected and implemented, and not interfered with by the government.
Our democratic nation was founded upon the concept of individual liberty. Our Declaration of Independence states that it is a self-evident truth that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our federal and state Constitutions ensure that each of these rights is protected against governmental interference.
The primary element of human liberty is the freedom to control our own bodies, and a major aspect of that is the freedom to make our own medical decisions, including especially those relating to our own personal reproductive health.
A woman’s personal health care, including the right to choose an abortion, should be between her and her doctor, and the government should not interfere. Women’s reproductive freedom must be protected. It is a sacred obligation of our government to protect and defend this critical and important liberty interest.
Why was it important for you to be endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona?
I am proud that I have repeatedly been endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona. It has always been important to me to receive support and recognition for my legal, moral, and financial support of a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions and to ensure that those decisions are respected and implemented.
As a woman, as a mother, as a former teacher, and as a prosecutor who serves crime victims, I am well aware of the negative impacts women and girls face when they are denied the freedom of bodily integrity — whether that denial is imposed by the government or by an individual abuser.
I am proud to be a solid 100 percent pro-choice Democratic elected official. I have always been firm and consistent in my support for accessible reproductive health care and choices, including abortion. On the personal level, as a married college undergraduate without health insurance, I was truly fortunate to be able to access the health care services of Planned Parenthood of Tucson and receive affordable exams and birth control, which allowed me to plan my family and complete my education without an unplanned pregnancy.
I have dedicated my entire professional life to supporting the autonomy and freedom of women and girls, indeed all people (including those in the LGBTQ community) to make the decisions about their own bodies and their own health care and to be treated fairly, justly, and equally under the law.
Because the mission of Planned Parenthood aligns directly with my own personal mission in this regard, and because I have always stood with Planned Parenthood, I am proud to have Planned Parenthood’s ongoing and continuing endorsement.