The presiding criminal judge of Maricopa County Superior Court threatened to begin releasing jail inmates and publicly blame Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his crime suppression operations unless prisoners in county jails started showing up to court on time.
But Judge Gary Donahoe said Friday that those statements he made in a series of e-mails were meant to get the sheriff's attention, and that he has no intention of arbitrarily releasing inmates facing trial.
"I guess maybe it was frustration and maybe trying to get their attention," Donahoe said of the sharp language he used in a series of e-mails he sent late last month to sheriff's officials. "This was to engage, to try to get upper management's attention. That's probably the last option we would consider because we realize that there are public safety issues and failure to appear issues."
Sheriff's officials on Friday called Donahoe's statements "grossly irresponsible," and a politically motivated attack on Arpaio and his law enforcement tactics.
The sheriff's office runs the county jails and is responsible for delivering inmates to court hearings.
Inmates not showing up for scheduled court dates has become a serious problem, especially since February when a prisoner escaped from the courthouse in downtown Phoenix while he was on trial on charges of sexually assaulting a minor, Donahoe said.
Staff shortages and budget cuts in the sheriff's office, security concerns and busy court calendars have made the problem worse, Donahoe said. When a jail inmate is not delivered to court on time, it causes delays or cancellations of court proceedings, he said.
Donahoe issued an administrative order Monday in which he consolidated some criminal court proceedings because detention officers have been unable to keep up with the court's calendars. He said that is part of his ongoing effort to work with the sheriff's office to deal with the logistical problems associated with delivering hundreds of inmates to court every day.
But Donahoe was not so understanding in a series of e-mails he sent late last month to the sheriff's office complaining that inmates were not showing up to court on time.
While Donahoe does not outwardly criticize the sheriff's crime suppression tactics in his formal order, he did blast the agency's allocation of officers to neighborhood saturation patrols in the e-mails.
"I read in the paper this morning that the sheriff committed over 200 deputies to an operation yesterday," Donahoe wrote in an April 24 e-mail to a sheriff's jail administrator. "So it doesn't appear to be a staff shortage issue, but a staff allocation issue."
Donahoe was referencing a sheriff's operation in which about 200 deputies and posse members targeted a neighborhood in Avondale to look for lawbreakers, fugitives and illegal immigrants.
In a separate e-mail sent April 23, Donahoe notified Capt. Bill Van Ausdal of the sheriff's office that he would implement steps to reduce the number of defendants in custody if problems getting them to court on time persisted.
"Of course, in releasing the defendants to the community, the court will be citing the Sheriff's decision to give non-mandate services priority over the mandate to service the court," Donahoe wrote. "The Sheriff can explain to the public why the release of defendants awaiting trial to the community has become necessary."
The e-mails were released by the sheriff's office in response to a request from the Tribune.
The order Donahoe issued Monday deals with court schedules and does not address the issue of releasing defendants from custody to await trial.
David Hendershott, chief deputy at the sheriff's office, said the agency has reassigned 55 more deputies and detention officers than were budgeted to jail transport in an attempt to ensure inmates show up to court hearings on time. As to the crime suppression operations, Hendershott said deputies assigned to those details are paid from a different budget than officers in the jails.
Judges issue orders and schedule hearings without regard to the logistics of moving prisoners safely through the jails, Hendershott said. Donahoe also seems to be trying to dictate law enforcement tactics to the sheriff by concluding officers on crime suppression operations could better be used in the jails, Hendershott added.
"He is using this as a political threat to embarrass the sheriff publicly or to blame the sheriff for the release of inmates," Hendershott said. "If the judge feels that he's better suited to decide how to use deputy sheriff manpower in Maricopa County, he needs to run for sheriff."
The sheriff's budget has 199 positions for delivering prisoners to court, according to Hendershott. There are currently 254 people assigned to those duties, he said.
Donahoe said Friday he understands the problems the sheriff has finding enough deputies and detention officers to deliver inmates to more than 50 different courts. When Donahoe tried to work out better procedures, he initially got little cooperation from top sheriff's administrators, he said. Since he sent the e-mails, the discussions have been more productive, Donahoe said.
As to his criticism about using so many deputies on neighborhood saturation patrols, Donahoe said he was not trying to pass judgment on the operations or dictate how the sheriff should allocate his resources. Rather he was passing along concerns that had been raised to him by other judges, he said.
Donahoe also denied an accusation raised in a sheriff's press release issued Thursday that he has "made known his dislike for anti illegal immigration efforts" conducted by Arpaio's office.
Donahoe is the judge who signed the search warrants used in a series of high-profile raids conducted by the sheriff's office targeting illegal immigrants and their employers, including an early-morning search of the Mesa Library last October.
Three janitors who worked for a company under contract with the city were arrested on allegations they used fake identifications to obtain city credentials. The investigation netted 16 arrests - most of them occurring at the Phoenix offices of Management Cleaning Controls and the homes of suspects.