Local prosecutors wield extraordinary, often unchecked, power that extends beyond their counties and reaches the entire state of Arizona. Prosecutors decide who gets charged with a crime and, because the vast majority of criminal cases end in a plea deal, who gets convicted. Their influence often determines who goes home before trial and who goes to jail, who gets treatment for mental illness or addiction, and who goes to prison — and for how long.
And in Arizona, local prosecutors are also the most powerful lobbying force on matters of criminal justice. In recent years, they’ve worked against and killed bipartisan and evidence-based reform bills. In effect, prosecutors have functioned as super legislators with veto power over statewide policy that affects millions of Arizonans.
Both in Arizona and throughout the United States, prosecutors have long used their influence to drive mass incarceration, making prison and punishment their top priority over fairness, equal treatment, and safer communities. But prosecutors can also be catalysts for transformative change.
In a letter signed by 12 advocacy organizations and four state legislators, we are calling for such change from the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which must select an interim county attorney to replace Bill Montgomery, who resigned to serve on the Arizona Supreme Court.
The need for change is magnified in Maricopa County, home to the third-largest prosecuting office in the country. For the last decade, Montgomery fueled Arizona’s sky-high imprisonment rate through aggressive prosecutions and his close relationship — a “marriage,” as House Speaker Rusty Bowers put it — with powerful lawmakers. He shaped a criminal legal system that protects powerful wrongdoers in law enforcement, while preying upon the vulnerable, often low-income people, people of color, and people with mental illness. It’s a system that costs taxpayers billions with little to show in return; over the last decade, 32 states have reduced both crime and imprisonment. Arizona is not among them.
Our letter explains how the Board of Supervisors can seize this opportunity to reject Montgomery’s legacy and advance policies that serve the interests of all Maricopa County residents.
First, the Board must recognize its limited mandate to choose an interim county attorney, not to anoint a de facto incumbent for the 2020 election. Voters deserve a fair opportunity to select the next county attorney without the scales tilted by an inherently partisan process. Not surprisingly, all the applicants have so far stated they’ll run in 2020 if appointed, but the Board should insist on a pledge from their appointee to not seek office when the interim term is over.
Second, the Board must seek input from people affected by the criminal legal system. Formerly incarcerated people, families of incarcerated people, victims of police violence, people who have lost jobs, homes, or even loved ones because of criminal charges — all should be heard on the failures of the status quo. For too long, policy has been dictated by those causing the problem; it’s time to listen to the people who have lived it.
Third, the Board must ultimately choose someone committed to reform both within the County Attorney’s Office and throughout the state. Our letter sets forth several specific policies, including:
- Radical transparency and the prompt disclosure of public records. Montgomery fought tooth and nail to hide public information, even information in the possession of other agencies such as local law enforcement. Such unlawful secrecy kept critical information from the public and made it impossible to hold the office accountable.
- Hold police and prosecutors accountable. Under Montgomery, rampant prosecutorial misconduct from sexual harassment to the suppression of evidence flourished with few if any consequences. Protecting unethical prosecutors came at the expense of due process and fairness, and even led to innocent people on death row. Likewise, unchecked police violence has turned into a policing crisis that has made national headlines.
- Recognize that prison is a destabilizing, traumatic force that destroys communities far more than it protects them, and commit to reducing Arizona’s prison population by connecting more people to treatment and other community-based services. The interim county attorney should also endorse overdue legislative reforms — such as changes to the state’s harsh sentencing laws — that will safely lower imprisonment.
Prosecutors have the power to destroy lives. But in cities and counties across the country — red and blue, liberal and conservative — voters are demanding better. They are demanding prosecutors who have abandoned the failed and harmful policies of mass incarceration, and who truly serve their communities with policies that strengthen and build up rather than punish and tear down.
It’s a change in approach long overdue in Maricopa County, and one the Board of Supervisors should pursue now.