Maricopa County Attorney To Hire Independent Investigator To Look At ACLU Prosecution Data

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Thursday, July 23, 2020 - 11:42am
Updated: Thursday, July 23, 2020 - 2:08pm

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Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel
Maricopa County Attorney's Office
Allister Adel

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The [American Civil Liberties Union] of Arizona issued a new report this month called "The Racial Divide of Prosecutions in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office." The data was gathered between 2013 and 2017. Some of the takeaways include that white people are more likely to have cases dismissed or not even have charges filed than people of color, and that Black and Hispanic people will spend significantly more time behind bars than their white counterparts. Among other items, the ACLU suggests areas of improvement for the county attorney's office, such as increasing transparency and implementing policies using a racial justice lens. Earlier, I spoke with Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel to get her reaction. The information ACLU looked at was from years prior to Adel taking office. I started the conversation by asking for her reaction to the report.

ALLISTER ADEL: I can tell you that in response to the report, we are hiring — looking at hiring — an outside consultant to look at the data and give us an independent report. That person, once they're chosen, will have the same data that was given to the ACLU back then to make a determination. I will say that the report is a snapshot. And as to your point, it was prior to me when my predecessor was there. But also, sometimes it doesn't take into account if somebody had a prior criminal history or, for instance, if they were in, sent to prison for a drug possession charge, if they had a more serious charge, such as an aggravated assault, often prosecutors so that that person doesn't have to go to prison for five to 15 years on an aggravated assault will instead plead them to the lesser charge of a drug case. And it also doesn't account for sometimes people that are on probation and have jail time. Sometimes they will do what we call 'reject probation' because they just want to go over to the Department of Corrections and finish their sentence there. So there's a lot of variables in what we're looking at. And again, it's a snapshot, but I take it seriously. And that's why we want somebody outside and independent to look at it. And Steve, I can also tell you I have been very vocal about my commitment to transparency. And one of the ways that we are doing that is we now have a public-facing data dashboard. That allows the public to see what cases have been submitted to the county attorney's office, what has been filed, demographics, all of those things. So when we talk about disparate treatment of people and their sentencing in the charging, the data that we're going to glean from that is going to help us during my administration. And beyond that, my other commitment to transparency that will also help with the population that is being put in prison is we now have a very robust diversion program so that we can get people the help that they need and not just institutionalize them.

GOLDSTEIN: Earlier this summer, you said, "We've changed the culture of our office to look at what we do through the lens of how are we helping our community." You've mentioned a couple of things. Other changes that fit into that narrative?

ADEL: Yes, we have communicated with our staff two mottos, if you will. We are character-driven professionals that will do the right things for the right reasons every single time. And it goes to our motto of ethical excellence every single day. That's part of the culture shift. But it takes a while. And so what we've done in action to that is that we've also taken a complete revamp of our plea policies to make them more efficient, to make the lawyers and the judges have more discretion and to make them less harsh where it needs to be. We are still going to go after the worst of the worst and hold them accountable. But in January 1, we took a big step towards this robust diversion program when we eliminated a $630 fee that was charged by the county attorney's office — a financial barrier to those who could get help. And so now we have upwards of 2,000 people in the program. It was intended to roll out in April, but with the pandemic hitting, it was delayed slightly. But I can tell you that we are taking steps toward that with staged counseling because, again, we are looking at treating the offender, not the offense. Is there [an] underlying criminogenic need for why they're committing crime? Did they forge a prescription? That people that want to do better, be better? We will put them in a program that has evidence-based practices to get them the help that they need to be successful.

GOLDSTEIN: Allister, as you mentioned, evidence-based, also talking about data and having an independent outsider take a look at the data that the ACLU has decided to crunch with this report that they've put out. But let me ask you about the circumstances we have right now in the country. Certainly, the George Floyd killing is what has gotten most of the attention, and that has caused a number of people in the public to ask newer questions as it relates to, to questions of racial justice. And they've brought up police officers, of course. They've also brought prosecutors and how prosecutors handle these cases. Are there issues where people have to change their perception to some extent when they see an offender?

ADEL: What happened to George Floyd was a tragedy. He was murdered. And that set off a wave of conversations in our nation that had been dormant for a little bit of time. Even in our own county, Dion Johnson was killed. I can tell you that when I started, I met with leaderships and minority communities and have had subsequent conversations with groups of them, because I truly believe that we have to have conversations about this, otherwise we can't make progress. And I respect the people out there that are peacefully protesting to have their voice heard. I can tell you with great pride, our lawyers take so many trainings on racial bias, things like that, because it is an important issue in our country right now. And I take it very, very seriously.

GOLDSTEIN: The ACLU of Arizona is saying that it requested data sets they only received after suing. Was there resistance to share the data? Is what they're saying valid?

ADEL: Well, you'd have to ask my predecessor on that. I don't know the answer to that. I can tell you that once I came on board, we changed the way that we do public records requests. It used to be that the, you know, the first in and that, you would have had the priority and they just went in sequential order. We have changed that to make sure that we are getting interest groups, community groups, such as the ACLU and the media, priority cases that we can get you the information you need in advance. And then we'll look at the other cases where it's the neighbor who wants to know about what's going on, why was he arrested? Those will still go out. But we want to make sure that those groups that want to see our criminal justice system do better. Those groups that want to get information to the community, such as the media, that they get that information in a timely manner. And I can tell you, when I started, there was a backlog. It would take about nine months to get public records out. We have cleared that backlog and we are now down to about a 30 to 45-day turnaround on public records requests.

GOLDSTEIN: We are obviously in a campaign season and we'll know in a couple of weeks who your Democratic opponent is going to be. Does the timing of this report coming out give you pause at all? The fact that ACLU has not been discrete in your opposition to you and now we're entering, obviously, election season?

ADEL: You know, the ACLU has had me on their radar since I got appointed. I have met with them to try and explain to them what my platform is and that a lot of the things that they want done, I'm doing. So timing, you know, I think you can read into that both ways. I will tell you that I'm focusing on my campaign and conducting it with some integrity. And I am still out there getting my platform out there about how we are doing things right in the community and keeping our families in public safe, safe.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Allister Adel, she is Maricopa County Attorney. Allister, thank you as always, and stay well.

ADEL: You too, Steve. Take care.

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