The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is one of the most influential and powerful county offices in Arizona. The majority of people incarcerated in Arizona prisons were prosecuted by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and historically the county attorney has great sway over which criminal justice bills become law and which bills get stonewalled.
The office has operated in secrecy for decades—making it nearly impossible for the public to obtain important information about who it’s sending to prison and why.
For this reason, the ACLU of Arizona was forced to sue the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office for access to public records, which should have been promptly provided to anyone upon request. Instead we received these public records after a lengthy court battle and have now analyzed the data we received. The dataset consists of all criminal cases handled by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office from January 1, 2013 through December 31, 2017. What we found reveals troubling patterns of racial disparities in the prosecution practices of the third-largest prosecuting agency in the country.
Among the key findings:
Black and Hispanic people prosecuted by the Maricopa County Attorney’s office spend significantly more time incarcerated than white people.
On average, Black people spend about eight more months behind bars than white people.
Hispanic people spend an average of about seven more months behind bars than white people.
White people are more likely to have cases dismissed than people of any other race.
When ordered to pay a fine, Hispanic people must pay significantly higher amounts than white people, a raw average of about $647 and an average of $246 after controlling for charge severity, presenece of a plea, gender, and number of days someone's case remains in the system.
Because of the small number of individuals falling within the Indigenous (4%), Asian (1%), and Other (1%) categories, these categories were not explored for differences by themselves, but were included when the data was examined in its entirety.
These findings are deeply upsetting, but, unfortunately, not unexpected. Racial disparities touch every aspect of the criminal legal system, from increased harassment by police to arrest rates and from pre-trial detention rates to sentencing outcomes.
The first step toward ending these racial disparities is for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to routinely and proactively make race and ethnicity data available for critical analysis. Without understanding the causes of these racial disparities, any efforts to reform the criminal legal system will likely have unintended consequences that further drive systemic inequities. But the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has historically fought any and all efforts to bring transparency to the way it operates.
When Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel was first appointed to the office, she promised to be more transparent than her predecessor Bill Montgomery, stating “"if we are doing our job right, we have nothing to hide.”
But during the litigation in our public records lawsuit, Allister Adel followed in Montgomery’s footsteps, fighting to conceal vital information from the public and the voters.
For example, the ACLU of Arizona asked Adel months ago to publish race and ethnicity case data online as a term of a settlement agreement in the lawsuit. She refused.
It wasn’t until just this July, in the heat of an election year, that she unveiled a “data dashboard” that makes some, but not all, case data available to the public. It’s a step toward greater transparency, but so much more needs to be done.
This November Maricopa County voters will be asked to elect a County Attorney. All candidates should promise transparency by pledging to publish office policies online along with data on race, ethnicity, gender, charging decisions, convictions, deferred prosecutions, and diversion program placements. The data must also be critically and regularly analyzed for racial disparities with findings made available to the public.
Along with greater transparency, county attorney candidates should pledge to implement policies using a racial justice lens. These policies should go beyond implicit bias training and result in measurable reductions in racial disparities. For example, the County Attorney can implement a policy to stop prosecuting simple drug possession charges, including paraphernalia charges, which the data shows have a disparate impact on Black and Hispanic communities.
The County Attorney should also decline to prosecute any cases where arrests were tainted by racial profiling and commit to never relying on testimony or reports of police office who’ve exhibited racist or biased views, been dishonest, or otherwise engaged in misconduct.
Racial disparities will likely always exist in our criminal legal system if it remains in the current form it exists in today. We must therefore fundamentally transform our approach to harm and how we ensure public safety. We can start by demanding a county attorney who understands the crucial role they play in creating these harmful and racially disparate outcomes and by demanding all county attorneys take steps to hold themselves, and the prosecutors in their office, accountable.
To see where Maricopa County Attorney candidates stand on racism in the criminal legal system and transparency within in the office, visit www.smartjusticeaz.org/mcao2020.