MCAO data dashboard praised as ‘first step,’ but advocates want more info




Public domain image via Pxfuel.com

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is now making a plethora of information available online about the cases it prosecutes, helping to bring Arizona’s most populous county and largest prosecutorial agency in line with a longtime objective of the criminal justice reform movement.

Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel unveiled her office’s new data dashboard last week, touting it as a win for transparency and a critical prerequisite for criminal justice reform.

“If we are to enact meaningful reforms in the criminal justice system, it is important that we understand what is submitted to this office and then filed as it relates to criminal charges in this community,” Adel said in a press release announcing the dashboard. “This dashboard supports my vision for a more transparent process, and the importance of data-driven decision making.”

The kind of data that MCAO is making publicly available has been a major priority for advocates, who hope it can illustrate the shortcomings in the criminal justice system and serve as a guide that shows what kinds of changes are needed. 

During the truncated 2020 legislative session, Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, and Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, sponsored bills requiring county attorneys and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to make such information public; neither measure was passed into law. 

Last year, lawmakers provided funding for a similar pilot project at the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office

Jennifer Liewer, a spokeswoman for Adel, said the dashboard and the information it contains could drive the county attorney’s office to make internal policy changes and could lead Adel to support changes at the legislative level, where criminal justice reform has been a hot topic for the past several years but has made little headway at the Capitol.

The dashboard starts with the total number of cases referred to MCAO in each of the past three years, along with information on whether prosecutors filed charges, declined to prosecute, sent the cases to pretrial diversion or are awaiting additional information before a final decision is made.

From there, the website breaks down those cases by the type of crimes involved: drugs, theft, assault, forgery and a host of others. It shows the resolutions of those cases, as well. For example, if you want to know what percentage of total cases from 2018 resulted in guilty verdicts at trial, or what percentage of drug cases led to plea deals, the answers are only a few clicks away.

The dashboard includes ethnic and racial data on the suspects in the cases that MCAO handles. That data can be broken down by types of charges and case disposition for each racial or ethic group. 

“Prosecutors would historically say that race doesn’t impact their decision making. Allister has said that before. But I think there’s been an argument made that maybe they do need to look at race and understand the whole person and what their background is,” Liewer said. “We don’t necessarily know how that information can be best used. But the first step is gathering it and putting it somewhere where the community can take a look at it.”

And the dashboard shows information on how many cases and what kinds of charges each local law enforcement agency is referring to MCAO, and how many referrals involve various gangs.

Criminal justice reform advocates said several statistics jumped out at them.

Rebecca Fealk, program coordinator for the Arizona chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, noted that Black people make up a disproportionate share of MCAO’s caseload. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 6.4% of Maricopa County’s population is Black. But MCAO’s dashboard shows that African Americans account for 17% of all cases referred to the agency.

Another statistic that stood out to advocates was the sheer number of MCAO’s cases that involve drug charges. In 2018, about 45% of the cases Maricopa County prosecutors filed involved drug charges. Last year, that number was nearly 47%.

“We’ve been continually criminalizing addiction and drugs for 34 years in this country. And if 50% of the resources are going towards that, maybe it’s not working. Maybe we need to look at alternatives that don’t involve punishment and actually look at this as a public health issue,” Fealk said.

Conversely, criminal defense attorney Charity Clark noted that violent crimes made up only a small percentage of MCAO’s overall caseload. Assault cases made up about 12% of referrals, weapons and explosives cases made up less than 3%, and robbery and terrorism-related offenses each made up less than 2%.

“You have to question why we still have such a really high incarceration rate,” Clark said. A 2018 report by the criminal justice reform advocacy group FWD.us showed that Arizona had the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country.

Among defense attorneys and others who advocate for justice reform, such as the Arizona chapters of the American Friends Service Committee and American Civil Liberties Union, enthusiasm over the data that’s now publicly available for Maricopa County was tempered by what they viewed as missing information. Many had the same view: It’s a good first step, but more is needed.

One frequent complaint was that various types of drug offenses are lumped together. The dashboard shows what percentage of cases involved drug charges, and breaks them down further based on whether the charges involve marijuana, narcotic drugs or “dangerous drugs.” But that doesn’t indicate whether people are being charged for simple possession, sale of small amounts or sale of large quantities.

“How many people went to prison for selling a dime bag as if they were some kind of big-time drug dealer? Those kinds of things, that kinds of nuance, what are we sending people to prison for, is really not in this data,” said Nate Wade, a Pima County public defender who serves on the board of the pro-reform group Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

Another common criticism was that the data on the disposition of cases is sparse. The dashboard shows how many charged cases end in guilty verdicts, not guilty verdicts, plea deals and diversion. But it doesn’t say which end in probation versus prison, or how long those prison sentences are.

“The true problem we run into in our justice system, it’s not just the charging, it’s not just what cases are coming forward,” Clark said. “What really ends up being our issue is how are we disposing of these cases? Because that’s when you start dealing with the issues of recidivism.”

Fealk said more detailed data on case disposition would show whether Black defendants face stiffer penalties than white defendants with the same charges.

And while the dashboard shows what percentage of cases the county attorney declined to prosecute, it doesn’t say how many of those cases were referred to city courts or other entities, said Armando Nava, a criminal defense attorney in Phoenix who serves as treasurer for Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

“I would like to know how many of those were not filed because they were submitted for misdemeanor charging,” Nava said.

Liewer also characterized the dashboard as a first step and a “work in progress.” She said more information will be added, though that will take time.