Here’s what Interim Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said about inherited case backlog

Jun 13, 2022, 4:35 AM

PHOENIX — Rachel Mitchell inherited a backlog of cases upon being appointed interim Maricopa County attorney in April by the Board of Supervisors.

Mitchell, who is vying to keep the role in a special election later this year and serve the remainder of Allister Adel’s term, sat down with KTAR News 92.3 FM to discuss the issue.

Q: How have things been going? How has the transition been of stepping into this role?

A: “You know, it’s gone very smoothly. I have excellent people in the executive area of my office. Our chief deputy started about a month ago, he has 40 years of prosecution experience, and my chief of staff also has a lot of experience. So it’s been a very smooth transition.”

Q: I want to start off talking about the backlogs. You’ve mentioned in press conferences before that you inherited a backlog. Can you explain what the backlogs are?

A: “The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office reviews every time that an officer is involved in a shooting and that is true even if no one is hit or if someone is killed. When I came into office, I inherited a backlog of, I believe, 59 cases that had yet to be reviewed. Now, some of those, the investigation had been submitted, but there were still some other pieces that we were waiting for. But you have to keep in mind when there’s a backlog, there’s an officer who is wondering ‘are charges going to be filed against me?’ There could be next of kin who lost somebody in the shooting who are wondering what the outcome of that investigation is and what the charging decision is going to be, so it’s very important to get to it in a timely fashion. So, one of the things we’ve done is we have streamlined the process and just really put a lot of emphasis on the process so that we can work down that backlog. Just two weeks ago we were able to reduce it by 15% and we anticipate keeping up that pace. So that within a number of months, we should be on top of it.”

Q: What did the streamlining process look like? How did you get to where you are now?

A: “We didn’t want to sacrifice any sort of quality or eyes on ability, but what we did is we took certain cases that were more straightforward and we have put them in front of a group that any one of the people can say ‘I want the full process,’ but we cut down on the amount of time it takes for our workers to summarize the investigation. You still have the entire investigation, you still have outside community members looking at it, as well as senior staffers, but just that preparation time was causing a great delay.”

Q: Is there a process to how you are prioritizing some of these cases to get them done quicker? Do some move forward quicker? Let’s say a case happened recently, but it would be easier to make a decision in, are you prioritizing it in any sort of way?

A: “I think we’re trying to look at the ones that have been around longer and trying to get to those first. If there is one that is a little more straightforward and more recent, and we can get to it quickly, we’re definitely not saying we’re not going to do that.”

Q: When do you think you’ll make it through the backlog?

A: “I think it’s fair to say that within six months we’ll definitely be on top of it. There is always going to be a number of cases that have occurred where maybe we don’t have the complete investigation from the police agency or the investigation is done, but we don’t have the medical examiner’s report or toxicology report. We are not going to, again, sacrifice quality for speed and so we are still going to wait for all of that before we review it.”

Q: Is there also a felony backlog? Can you talk to me about what that looks like and how many cases are in that backlog?

A: “There are two backlogs when we talk about the felony backlog. The backlog that we are focused on right now is there were cases that were charged. So all of the review has been done and they’re sitting in a queue waiting to be fed into the court system. We had been doing that at a slow pace because, with COVID and personnel shortages etc., the court was not capable of handling a greater number. But we have met with Jeff Fine, the clerk of the Superior Court. He’s been very cooperative to divert resources so that we can now increase the numbers of cases that we are putting into the system. We’ve also talked to the Public Defenders Services because, obviously, they are going to have to react to those as well. So those are the filed, but not submitted to the court system backlog. There’s also a number that have not been filed, and that’s throughout the office. It’s not in any one particular bureau. So one of the things we’re doing to address that is we’re looking to hire attorneys who are experienced prosecutors to come back and focus on charging so that we can reduce those. There’s a number of reasons why that happened, one of them, as you’ve heard me say, we’re 20% down personnel-wise. But also with the backlogs created by the COVID situation, it just built up and we need to really work to get that down.”

Q: Do you have a specific number of how many felony cases are backlogged right now?

A: “We can get you the number on that, but I can tell you the number of those waiting in the queue that have been filed was about 800. We’re actually doubling the number of cases that we’re putting in the system, and that is going to quickly reduce that and then we can focus on the other. But one thing I want to be very careful about is I don’t want to start charging so many cases because with every case that’s charged there needs to be a prosecutor to prosecute it. So one of the things that we’ve really focused on is a very robust recruitment campaign that extends beyond ASU and U of A law schools, although obviously, we would love to have someone from one of those law schools. I have to say particularly ASU, sorry Wildcats. But we also want to go outside of our state and encourage people to come to our state. We have great benefits here, we have loan forgiveness after a period of time, we’re looking to reimburse for moving expenses, etc. So we really want to encourage people to come here and to see it not in the light that I think some people have portrayed prosecution, which is just putting people in jail, but really helping the community and making the community safe. We’re working with victims’ people who have really been devastated by crime. I mean we just saw something the other day where a woman was brutally beaten. I mean, that is someone we will be working with.”

Q: Are you having a similar streamlining process with the felony backlog as you are with the officer-involved shooting cases?

A: “We really can’t streamline that process anymore. Those are not reviewed by committee, they are reviewed by a single prosecutor. So, we just have to have somebody who can do eyes on. But we have to know that we have someone on the other end to take it to court and, as you know, once you file charges, the clock starts ticking. So, it’s not something that we can file charges, put it into the system and then just hope that we get the prosecutors. We need to have the prosecutors before we start doing that.

Q: Earlier we saw 180 cases get dropped. Are any of the cases in the queue in danger of getting dropped?

A: “The 180 cases that were submitted, but not reviewed in time, those were misdemeanors and in Arizona, misdemeanors have a one-year statute of limitations. What I am talking about in the queue are felony, so there’s a seven-year statute of limitations. But one of the things I’ve done to make sure that we don’t have that happen again is we’re working through our case racking system to make sure alerts are given out so that, even if there is a misdemeanor component to a felony case, that we don’t go by that deadline. So we’re working to set that up so that doesn’t even happen when there is felony involved.”

Q: What would a goal be for you of how long you would like this process to take?

A: “It’s certainly not going to happen overnight. We’re certainly going to have to get the numbers up. Just last week, I talked to the intern that is coming in the office, which we hope will love being here and come to the office, but there’s a reality about when people pass the bar and get admitted. So, we’re probably talking a major infusion of personnel, probably around November, and then of course you have to do training. So this is going to last a while. So, our job is to prioritize and handle that which can be handled with the personnel we have.”

Q: There’s been so much discussion about the backlogs, but is it common to have some sort of backlog? Is having some sort of cases in a backlog unusual or is that normal?

A: “It’s very normal. You know, I’ve worked in the office for almost 30 years. There’s always a degree of a backlog. As you know, government never works with a surplus of people. We always work with just enough and there’s always attrition of some sort and so you’re going to have a backlog. But the numbers are just too high for my comfort level, and I want to address that. And we have the unprecedented situation of COVID that occurred that really did impact that as well as the personnel shortage.”

Q: What would your comfort level of a backlog be?

A: “You know, I hate to give an exact number or percentage on that. I mean, it’s going to have to be something that I have to look at in terms of, is it past 30 days, for example, that it’s been in our office. That’s one of the things, I mean, if it doesn’t get charged within a week, that’s very typical. But if it doesn’t get charged within 30 days, then that is something I am going to have to look at.”

Q: Can you tell me about how the recruiting efforts are going?

A: “It’s going great. We just got an update yesterday on the analytics of the recruitment campaign, which we’re doing online. We’ve had a lot of people get the ad, for lack of a better term, looking on the website, but also looking on our regular website and staying on it longer, which shows interest in coming here. Anecdotally, I can tell you that our paralegal trainer said that she pulled two lists to recruit from recently that are larger than any list that she’s seen in over six months. We’re just at the inception of it, but we’re getting some really good numbers off the top.”

Q: The entire nation has been faced with staffing shortages coming out of the pandemic and a lot of people are having a hard time finding qualified candidates. Is that a challenge for you guys as well?

A: “I just had coffee with the head of the Public Defender Services and they’re having the same challenge as well. I mean, as prosecutors, we have to recognize not only does there have to be a prosecutor to try the case, there has to be a defense attorney, a judge and court staff. The system is definitely experiencing a shortage just like everyone else and we can’t overwhelm the system. So we have to work within that and come up with some creative solutions and, fortunately, we’ve got good partners who are willing to do that. “

Q: Those are all my questions. Do you have anything else you want to add?

A: “I just want the community to know that the people in this office are working very hard. It’s not uncommon for them to be working well into the evening hours. People aren’t here for any reason other than they want to be here and they want to do the work and they care about the community and that is going on. People can be assured that you have a great group of employees here, we just need more and if you’re somebody who can be a paralegal or an attorney, this is a great place to work.”

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Here’s what Interim Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said about inherited case backlog