PHOENIX — The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office handles thousands of cases per year, but a majority of them never go to trial.
The head of the department, Attorney Bill Montgomery, said that’s because most of them lead to guilty pleas.
“Eighty-five percent of cases are going to plead out, 2 to 3 percent of cases are going to go to trial, and the rest, for one reason or another, are going to wind up being dismissed,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery and his office get an average of 50,000 cases submitted to their office per year, but only submit 32,000 of them for charges, which accounts for 60 to 70 percent of the overall cases.
While there is a high volume of cases on average that actually do get charged, Montgomery has just 360 authorized prosecutors — and they can go through anywhere from 500 to 1,000 cases each, per year.
“And at any given time, you may have 30 to 50 cases assigned to you, that you’re reviewing for charging, prepping for trial, resolving [or] assisting other prosecutors on,” Montgomery said.
While this may seem like a miniscule amount, Maricopa County is actually the third largest attorney’s office in the country: Only Los Angeles and Chicago’s Cook Counties have more prosecutors.
Montgomery, who has been in office since 2010, said there’s a lot of thought that goes into what charges should be filed, as well as which cases that can be resolved up front.
“People ought to feel confident that we’re not rubber stamping every single [case] that comes in — that just because a case gets for a charge, that we automatically file it,” he said.
But not everyone has this same frame of mind.
Jason Castle, a former prosecutor in Phoenix, said the state’s plea bargain system is highly flawed and can be easily abused.
Since the state dictates what people are charged with, as well as any potential plea deal, Castle argued, the system gives the prosecutors too much power.
“To a certain extent, justice is not the primary goal of a plea bargain system,” Castle said. “The plea bargain system is about reducing risk and moving cases, plain and simple.”
The plea bargain system was originally designed to help the state cut costs on capitol crimes, but Castle said now the justice system relies on it for everything, all the way down to criminal speeding tickets.
“There are so many cases going through the criminal justice system that, without plea agreements, the system could not operate,” he said.
In KTAR 92.3 FM’s 2016 documentary, “Locked Up Arizona,” several former inmates said they felt intimidated into submitting a guilty plea because the alternative could mean much more prison time if they lost in trial.
But Montgomery argued that just isn’t the case.
“I’ve never met anyone who said, ‘I’m a prosecutor because I hate people, and I want to see how many people I can send to prison,'” he said.
Montgomery said by and large, he has met prosecutors who care deeply about the notions of justice, public safety and protecting people.
“Protecting those who, every single day, are just getting up trying to do the best they can: Provide for their family, get an education,” he said. “And [being able] to do that without somebody causing them harm, or taking their life or making it difficult to be able to care of others.”
“That’s what’s really is going on every day,” he said.
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