Maricopa County Attorney Responds To Pressure To Release Inmates
Criminal justice reform has been under heavy discussion for several years, with supporters on both sides of the aisle. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been louder calls for reform. That has also included concerted efforts to reduce the current jail and prison population.
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel wrote an op-ed recently that criticized some organizations for "exploiting a public health emergency to forward a political agenda."
The Show spoke with Adel and asked her whether she thinks the political push is actually behind this, rather than people believing there are simply too many people behind bars.
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Criminal justice reform has been under heavy discussion for several years with supporters on both sides of the aisle. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been louder calls for reform. That has also included concerted efforts to reduce the current jail and prison population. Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel wrote an op-ed recently that criticized some organizations for, quote, "exploiting a public health emergency to forward a political agenda," end quote. I spoke with Adel about that earlier and asked her whether she thinks the political push is actually behind this rather than people believing there are simply too many people behind bars.
ALLISTER ADEL: It's really about balancing who is in our system right now with the pandemic. But, you know, what I mentioned in the op-ed, also, was that the emails that I've been targeted with — this office has been inundated — they were an exact replica of ones that were being sent out even before COVID-19. And I think it's unfortunate that in a time where we all need to be coming together as a community, that this is very divisive. So we are working at the county attorney's office doing our part to make sure we still hold people accountable and protect victims' rights. But we're slowing the number of cases that we're putting into the court system.
GOLDSTEIN: That's a practical reason. You have to do that at this point, right?
ADEL: Absolutely. And some of it is driven by the resources of our courts. They have gone to a very limited structure, very limited number of judges in the courtrooms. They are not doing hearings for people who are out of custody. We are prioritizing those that are in custody to get their cases resolved as quickly as possible, because many of them, if they take a plea agreement, they could be released to probation or something like that. So we are taking a measured, balanced approach as to how we're filing our cases. And it used to be before the pandemic, we would file 7-800 cases a week. And from April 4th to the 24th, we only filed 352.
GOLDSTEIN: In your big picture then, do what you're characterizing as sort of a political move here, does that make you less inclined to to favor certain reform efforts?
ADEL: It doesn't curtail what I believe are meaningful reforms that can happen in our system. We're just still gonna keep doing our job ethically and for the right reasons. But I do believe it's politically motivated. But we are not changing our policies on how we do things.
GOLDSTEIN: Do you believe this is especially because it is an election year? Or do you think it is more because of the circumstances we all find ourselves in now?
ADEL: You know, honestly, I think it's a combination of both. Yes, it's an election year. You know, I was appointed as county attorney by the Board of Supervisors last October, and it's the greatest job in the world. And now I got to keep it. I'm working hard for our community, but we know people are out there nervous right now. This is the new normal that we keep calling it. But we have to balance that with public safety.
GOLDSTEIN: Could COVID-19 spread, do we want to have fewer prisoners because of that? Does that apply to Maricopa County jails at all?
ADEL: That's a good question. So once somebody is actually in the Department of Corrections, they're under a court-ordered sentence. And our office really has very little, if any, involvement. That is for the governor and his executive team to deal with. As far as inmates into the jail, we are seeing an overall reduction. Sheriff Penzone has been putting out numbers that he has reduced his jail population quite significantly. And we're doing our part to make sure that if there's people that are in custody, that we are able to resolve their case as quickly as we can. But again, this is about balancing public safety. There's still people out there committing very scary crimes — murders, molestations — and we have to make sure that we hold him accountable and protect victims.
GOLDSTEIN: Since we're talking about whether there are political feelings on the part of those who want to release more prisoners, Maricopa County Attorney is an elected position, so politics have to get involved in there. You also have to make some political calculations I would think as well. Does that complicate this?
ADEL: You know, it does not, because we talk over here, we talk about being character-driven leaders and character-driven professionals. And I have said all along that we are doing the right things for the right reasons every single time, regardless of any political implication. And we're going to continue to do that.
GOLDSTEIN: There was one critic on social media, though, who mentioned that the op-ed is tone deaf. And I want to give you a chance to respond to that.
ADEL: Well, that's unfortunate. People are always going to have their varying opinions and their right to to speak out against that. I don't think that that is an accurate statement at all. So people are going to say what they're going to say on social media or otherwise, and I invite differing opinions. However, again, as county attorney, we were doing the responsible thing for the right reasons.
GOLDSTEIN: How quickly do you think you can ramp up to where you were before? Is this a step-by-step incremental process watching the governor? Is there something more to it than that?
ADEL: Well, we are watching what the governor is doing on his stay safe, stay connected, stay healthy, stay at home order; but we are also working in conjunction with the courts and public and private defense to make sure that when we are more fully open that we do this in a slow, measured, incremental approach. We can't just flood our court system with all these cases. So we will have a small incremental ramp up and we will work in conjunction with our stakeholders to make sure that the system isn't too burdened.
GOLDSTEIN: In any way will this — what happened here, the fact that we're going through this pandemic — in any way, has it affected your philosophies going forward when it comes to prosecuting crime?
ADEL: You know, it hasn't. We have a job to do. And once this pandemic is over, there's a time to have those conversations. It's just not a responsible time right now just because we all have so much going on. You know, personally, professionally. And so it's it's not like I'm closing the door on those conversations. It's just right now we all have other work to do.
GOLDSTEIN: And that is Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel. Allister, stay safe. Thanks very much for your time.
ADEL: Thank you. You stay safe and well, take care.