How much reform do voters want from the next Maricopa County attorney?

By: - September 10, 2020 3:07 pm

Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in downtown Phoenix. Photo via Layton Construction

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has moved away from the hardline, tough-on-crime attitude it had for nearly a decade under Bill Montgomery’s tenure — the question for voters in November will be exactly how much of a departure they want to make.

After Montgomery resigned for a seat on the Arizona Supreme Court, county supervisors chose Allister Adel, a Republican, to replace him as Maricopa County attorney. In less than a year, she has implemented a number of reforms related to marijuana possession, diversion programs and home detention, among other issues.

To Julie Gunnigle, Adel’s Democratic opponent, those changes are little more than window dressing. Her campaign characterizes the race as “status quo versus the new era.”

Adel’s first 11 months in office have been a flurry of activity.

People who are arrested for marijuana possession can have their charges dropped if they get a medical marijuana card. She’s adopted a “treatment first” policy for plea deals in drug cases. People who are convicted of misdemeanor drunk driving offenses can now serve part of their sentences in home detention. And Adel combined two pre-existing programs to make a new felony diversion program, along with eliminating a minimum $630 fee for defendants simply to participate. 

“That financial barrier is gone, so we can reach more people,” Adel said, boasting that it led to an increase in people using diversion programs.

Adel created a new data dashboard that lets people access a wealth of information on criminal justice statistics in Maricopa County. And she created new units within the office to review post-conviction claims of innocence and to examine police use-of-force incidents. New community and business advisory boards provide input on how to reduce recidivism.

Under Adel’s watch, MCAO has moved further from the legacy left by her predecessor, Montgomery. Some of her top priorities, she said, have been to hold criminals accountable and protect victims’ rights, but at the same time being judicious with resources and finding ways to reduce recidivism.

“I saw opportunities there where we could effectuate change in our community. The national conversation has even changed related to criminal justice reform or innovations. So, it’s incumbent upon us as prosecutors to realize that, when we talk about making changes, it’s not just a legislative solution,” Adel said.

Gunnigle, a private practice attorney who served as a prosecutor in Indiana and Illinois, has a much more ambitious agenda when it comes to criminal justice reform.

Arizona has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country — fourth highest, according to a 2018 study by the pro-reform group — and the state spends $1.2 billion a year on corrections. Gunnigle believes the Maricopa County attorney can play an important role in changing that.

Rather than letting people get out of marijuana possession charges if they obtain a medical marijuana card, Gunnigle wants to end prosecutions for low-level marijuana possession charges altogether.

Gunnigle also wants to end the use of so-called Hannah priors, which allows prosecutors to charge first-time defendants who have committed multiple crimes as repeat offenders. Montgomery successfully urged Gov. Doug Ducey last year to veto legislation that would have prohibited the practice

And Gunnigle said she wants to end cash bail in Maricopa County, or at least go as far as the county attorney can without changes to state law or the Arizona Constitution, which would be required to halt the practice altogether. 

“A reform-minded prosecutor in particular should be committed to not asking for any cash bail,” Gunnigle said.

While Adel has a new unit to review use-of-force incidents by law enforcement officers, Gunnigle wants an independent unit at MCAO to prosecute incidents of excessive force, saying that’s a change she can make on day one if she’s elected. And Gunnigle wants to find ways to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system that lead to tougher charges and harsher sentences for minorities.

Adel’s response to Gunnigle’s plans for ending prosecution of low-level drug possession cases is similar to her rationale for dropping charges for people who get medical marijuana cards. In both cases, she said, she wants people to follow the laws and for her office to enforce the laws that are on the books.

As for ending cash bonds, Adel said her office does not often ask for bonds. Other times, it’s a decision made by a judge, not by prosecutors. And, like Gunnigle, she noted that ending the practice of cash bail would require changing the laws.

There are many changes that a county attorney can make within her office. But other changes to the criminal justice system require legislative action. And both candidates want to be advocates for changes that they can’t implement themselves.

Adel said she’ll advocate for body cameras for all law enforcement officers in Arizona. She’s noncommittal on whether she would support a loosening of Arizona’s “truth in sentencing” law, which requires most inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences, but she said she’s interested in talking with stakeholders about whether to overhaul the state’s sentencing laws and exploring the possibility of enacting laws that would allow people to expunge criminal records. She said she’s been meeting with Democratic lawmakers on policies like Hannah priors.

Gunnigle plans to advocate for reform legislation if elected, an area where she said Adel has been deficient. Gunnigle wants to see a reduction in Arizona’s criminal sentencing requirements, which are among the harshest in the nation, and “extreme charge stacking” that drives up sentences.

“One of the things that we need to be thinking about is we can get a reform-minded county attorney … but what she can’t do is reconsider the prior decisions of this office, especially when it comes to sentences and verdicts,” she said. “It sure seems to me that giving people who are already incarcerated hope and a mechanism to have their sentences reevaluated would have been a good choice.”

There are signs that voters in Arizona are becoming more receptive to criminal justice reform, which could be good news for Gunnigle. 

A poll commissioned last year by showed voters were overwhelmingly supportive of allowing inmates to earn more time off their sentences for good behavior, charging people with misdemeanors instead of felonies for drug possession and allowing defendants who are charged with misdemeanors and non-violent crimes to be released from jail while they await their trials.

“It’s a good question how far voters want to go. In polling, it seems the public is very, very supportive of broad criminal justice reforms, more so than at any other time in my lifetime,” said Jared Keenan, an attorney with American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and president of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

Rick Romley, who served as Maricopa County attorney for 16 years, believes the public is open to criminal justice reform, but is only willing to go so far.

“I think the public wants a better justice system because I think that there has been a loss of confidence and trust by the public. But I don’t think they’re willing to go to defund the departments,” said Romley, a Republican who expects to publicly support Adel. 

Chuck Coughlin, a Republican political consultant, said Maricopa County voters might be uncomfortable with “more progressive elements of the social justice campaign.” While Coughlin is skeptical that voters want to go as far as Gunnigle does, he questions whether most voters will know much about her and Adel’s respective platforms. The race for county attorney will likely be drowned out by the much higher-profile campaigns for president and U.S. Senate, he said, and it will be difficult for the candidates to communicate their messages to voters. 

Neither Adel nor Gunnigle has much money, which will make it more difficult for them to get their messages out. Adel had less than $100,000 on hand as of mid-July, while Gunnigle had under $50,000 in the bank.

What might matter more in the race between Adel and Gunnigle is the changing electoral landscape in Maricopa County. Coughlin said races in Maricopa County, a Republican stronghold that went nearly 20 years without electing a Democrat to a countywide seat, used to be considered easy wins for the GOP. But 2016 saw the county elect a Democratic sheriff and county recorder, and Maricopa’s changing demographics have become a factor in statewide elections.

“If Arizona’s changing, it’s because Maricopa County is changing. And those countywide offices that used to be considered lay-up Republican victories… I don’t think they can be reliably considered that anymore,” Coughlin said. “It’s a race. I think it’s reliably considered a race.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Julie Gunnigle plans to end prosecutions for low-level marijuana possession, not for all drug possession charges.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”