The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is overhauling its prosecution policies to better reflect the needs of the community. Among the updates: some people caught with marijuana may avoid prosecution if they get a medical marijuana card.
“This is in line with my vision with what the MCAO is,” County Attorney Allister Adel said. “We are looking at ways to reduce recidivism and getting the offender what they need.”
Adel, a Republican, took over the office in October, after Gov. Doug Ducey appointed Bill Montgomery to the Arizona Supreme Court. She’s running for a full term in November, against Democrat Julie Gunnigle.
The updated policies give prosecutors more flexibility and discretion in recommending plea deals for things like drug offenses, violent crimes, firearm offenses, domestic violence, child abuse, sex offenses and driving under the influence.
According to the County Attorney’s Office, 90% of criminal charges are ending in plea agreements. Adel told The Arizona Republic the new policies will act like guidelines and allow prosecutors to settle cases at settlement conferences.
Settlement conferences happen during the court process before a case goes to trial. Both parties are able to give their opinion and the court may suggest ideas to help them come to an agreement for a plea deal.
Adel said times are changing. More people in the criminal justice system want to determine whether a person is committing a drug offense because of an addiction, and if so, help them get treatment.
Seventy-eight percent of inmates inside Arizona prisons were found to have a history of significant substance abuse prior to their incarceration, according a July report by the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.
Out of the state’s prison population last month, 8.3% (3,158) were behind bars for drug offenses — 102 people had convictions for marijuana possession.
During Montgomery’s time in office, he was known for his tough stance on drug crimes, including marijuana possession.
Under his leadership, a lawsuit was filed against the office for its diversion program for people with marijuana offenses. The lawsuit claimed the county’s program provider at the time generated nearly $15 million for the County Attorney’s Office from 2006 to 2016 by forcing people to pay thousands of dollars to participate in order to avoid prosecution.
The case continues to move through the court process.
Adel overhauled the program, lowering the costs and working with a different provider.
She said her new marijuana policy reflects state law.
Charges will be dismissed if the individual can obtain a medical marijuana card and provide proof of compliance before the case proceeds too far into the court process.
“Dismissing the case for someone who has shown a medical need for the substance, under a law passed by voters, is the right thing to do,” Jennifer Liewer, spokeswoman for the county attorney said.
Arizona voters in 2010 legalized medical marijuana use.
Push for transparency
In addition to changing some of the policies, the County Attorney’s Office for the first time will also make them available to the public online.
Adel said making these policies publicly available is another example of the office’s push to be more transparent.
“I wanted to make sure there was clarity with the community,” she said.
Recently, the office launched a dashboard showing its charging data in cases from 2017 through 2019. The dashboard is continuously being updated, according to the office.
It shows which law enforcement agency submitted each case, what the criminal charge is, the case’s status and how the County Attorney’s Office handled it.
It includes racial and gender information as submitted by law enforcement, which offers insights but is not always completely accurate because different agencies determine race and ethnicity in different ways — including by sometimes guessing.
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