Criminal justice activists are often branded as “soft on crime” or “anti-law enforcement,” but I am running for Maricopa County Attorney because I understand on an intimate level how vital our police, prosecutors and judges are to the community.
I know what law enforcement means to crime victims, because my family was kidnapped and held hostage by an international drug cartel.
And I know how a single encounter with police can transform a life, because I was arrested for underage drinking when I was 18, and it almost ended my legal career before it began.
Yes, I have a police record. I know some will see this is a red flag that should disqualify me from public office.
But, to the contrary, I see it as an asset – valuable experience that adds to my perspective on the justice system.
Ironically, it was my one night in jail that inspired me to become a lawyer in the first place.
I graduated with high marks, but then, after celebrating over a beer with friends, I got behind the wheel of a car.
There was no excuse. I showed no impairment during a routine traffic stop, but when the officer asked if I had been drinking, I answered truthfully.
A breath test showed my blood alcohol at 0.021 percent, one-quarter of the legal limit. But because I was under 21, I was booked on a misdemeanor charge and spent more than 24 hours behind bars.
I didn’t sleep the entire time. I was fearful of the other detainees.
So in that moment I decided to become a prosecutor. Help catch the bad guys and put them in prison.
I received a scholarship to attend Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, where I earned the prestigious Truman Young Fellowship, giving me hands-on experience as a prosecutor, and graduated second in my class.
But that misdemeanor conviction followed me, and some of the agencies I hoped to work for made it clear their doors would be closed to me because of it.
The “black mark” on my record blinded them to everything else I had done.
I changed gears and went into private practice, working with the Arizona Justice Project to exonerate those wrongly convicted, and later served with the Maricopa County public defender’s office, where I saw firsthand the toll that our “tough on crime” policies take on ordinary families.
My central campaign promise — to reduce the county’s contribution to jails and prisons by 50 percent — may sound bold for these uncertain times.
But more and more Americans are coming to believe that our experiment with mass incarceration is an expensive failure that hasn’t made us safer.
In 2018, Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together to pass the First Step Act, easing draconian sentences in federal courts, but we can’t allow that first step to be the last.
I believe in the rule of law. But I also believe in second chances, because I needed one myself. And I believe the time to repair our broken justice system is now.
Will Knight is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Maricopa County Attorney. Information: knight2020.com.