We need more from the next Maricopa County attorney

MCSO 4th avenue jail
Aerial shot of 4th Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix. Photo by Tony Webster | Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Much is being made of the importance of this year’s presidential election. But in all the noise, the most important election for Maricopa County is flying under the radar: the race for Maricopa County attorney. This position wields unparalleled power, possessing wide discretion in determining who to charge and how to sentence people, as well as substantial influence over state criminal legal policy.

In 2018, Maricopa County sent 8,796 people to prison, accounting for roughly 58% of all prison admissions. This office has a huge impact on the health and safety of our community and determines whether our system is fair and just.

Recently, voters got a chance to hear directly from the people vying to become their next county attorney. Candidates Julie Gunnigle and Allister Adel both spoke about their vision for the Maricopa County Attorney’s office, with both advocating for reform. While the incumbent, Adel, mentioned our coalition by name and pointed to conversations we’ve had with her office as evidence that she is working toward reform, in fact we have seen few of the changes we’ve told her we want to see.

The African-American Christian Clergy Coalition is not endorsing either candidate, but criminal legal reform is a top priority for us because Maricopa County has arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated far too many people for far too long. We are urging the next county attorney to embrace substantial changes to several key areas of the system, and we are urging Maricopa County residents to join us in this call for reform.

First, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office should lead the charge in ensuring violent law enforcement officers are held accountable, and untrustworthy officers are not relied upon in prosecutions. Phoenix led the nation in 2018 in officer shootings of residents, which was the highest number of shootings in the department’s history. While Police Chief Jeri Williams has taken meaningful steps to improve accountability and transparency, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office still lacks an independent office to conduct investigations into police violence, a change that is supported by fully 66% of Maricopa County residents. And yet, when County Attorney Adel had an opportunity to create an independent unit to investigate the killing of Dion Johnson by an Arizona state trooper, she failed to do so. We can and must do better if we intend to rebuild trust between law enforcement and our community.

The county attorney misunderstands why our community doesn’t trust law enforcement

Next, we need the county attorney to embrace reforms to significantly reduce the number of people coming into the justice system, including eliminating cash bail, diverting those with mental or behavioral health needs, and expanding opportunities for diversion. The elimination of cash bail is nothing new. An Arizona Supreme Court task force made this recommendation four years ago when it found that cash bail does nothing to improve safety, but rather keeps unconvicted people behind bars simply because they can’t afford bond.

And too many people are being arrested and prosecuted for drug possession, with a disproportionate impact on communities of color. In Arizona, Black people are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, and when prosecuted by MCAO, Latinx people spend an average of two months longer behind bars than white people prosecuted for the same crime.

Finally, the next county attorney must end sentencing practices that create pressure on people to plead guilty or which lead to unjustly long prison sentences. The most egregious of these is the use of “Hannah priors,” which allow prosecutors to charge someone as a repetitive offender even if they have never stepped foot in a courtroom before. This practice only serves to punish harshly, not to rehabilitate, and scares people into pleading guilty even when they might be innocent. The county attorney’s objective should be to fairly hold people accountable, not to secure the most severe sentences possible.

Regardless of the outcome next week, we will continue to have our eyes on this important office, and we urge our fellow residents to join us. We will continue to fight for the most vulnerable among us, including those incarcerated, because as Hebrews 13:3 tells us, we are called to “remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them.” The most fundamental values of our faith call for us to treat everyone as worthy of redemption.