By Romi Carrell Wittman
It was 6:30 a.m. in Los Angeles and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall was waiting for the scheduled phone call from Suzanne McFarlin, executive director of Greater Tucson Leadership. LaWall didn’t know the purpose of the call, but suspected it was something serious.
When McFarlin told LaWall that she’s been selected to receive the 2013 Tucson Founders Award, LaWall exclaimed in surprise. “Really?” she asked. “Phone calls…it’s usually something terrible that’s happened. You’ve just made my day. This is truly a wonderful honor.”
The award recognizes individuals who have demonstrated a significant and long-term dedication to the Southern Arizona community. The award was established in 1985 to augment the annual Man and Woman of the Year awards.
Amelia Craig Cramer, an attorney in the Pima County Attorney’s Office, nominated LaWall for the honor. Cramer said, “Because of her leadership and vision, Pima County is a stronger, safer and better community.”
LaWall’s ties to Tucson are deep. After graduating from the University of Arizona in 1976, she set out on a career as a high school English teacher. What she saw in the classroom opened her eyes to the inequities faced by children. The experience spurred her to return to school and obtain a law degree so she could effect meaningful change in the community.
She joined the Pima County Attorney’s Office in 1976 shortly after her graduation from law school. In 1996, she was the first woman elected Pima County Attorney, an office she has held for 17 years, making her one of the longest serving elected officials in Pima County. She is currently in her fifth term.
Under LaWall’s leadership, the frequency of violent crime in Pima County is less than half of what it was in 1996. In addition, her office has increased the percentage of violent offenders taken to trial – from 24 to 67 percent.
During her 40-year career, LaWall has created a multitude of programs designed to improve the lives of Tucsonans. She’s also lent her support to numerous nonprofit organizations, including Tu Nidito Children and Family Services and the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona Unidas program, an after-school leadership and philanthropy program for high school girls.
“There are few individuals who have done so much to benefit the Tucson area over such a long period of time as has Barbara,” said Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.
In 1993, she spearheaded the creation of the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization that provides forensic services to child victims of violent crime. In partnership with the Pima County Attorney’s Office, SACAC was able to purchase Russell, the Courthouse Dog. The 75-pound golden retriever is an assistance dog that helps crime victims, witnesses and others during the stressful stages of criminal proceedings. In particular, Russell has been a source of comfort to child victims as they provide testimony.
In 1996 LaWall created a Special Victims Unit dedicated to the prosecution of sex crimes. She has also been a tireless advocate for victims and has worked to establish victims’ rights at the federal level and help to secure passage of a national victims’ rights constitutional amendment.
She also led Arizona in the creation and passage of the Safe Baby Program. This law allows a mother to hand over a newborn to authorized healthcare personnel without risking prosecution for child abandonment, thus protecting unwanted infants from harm and even death.
She developed a number of diversion programs to help juvenile offenders get their lives back on track. LaWall helped implement the AMBER Missing Child Alert program across the state and was instrumental in the passage of legislation that makes it a misdemeanor for minors to share or save sexually explicit photos, videos or other digital materials. LaWall also prepared a model zoning law to ensure medical marijuana dispensaries were not located near schools, day care centers or other places where children congregate.
LaWall mentors and inspires those around her to do more in the community. She’s mentored dozens of young female attorneys who have gone on to successful careers as attorneys, instructors and jurists.
Laura Penny, executive director of the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona, said, “There are few individuals who have done so much to positively impact Tucson over such a long period of time. Barbara has devoted her entire life to public service.”
Cramer added, “She’s an extraordinary leader with great vision. Her efforts go beyond the mere scope of her duty to prosecute individuals who violate the law. She has been on the front lines of fighting crime for nearly 40 years and has been a tireless advocate for this community and its residents.”