Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas took a bold step last week when he announced that accused repeat felons will have to go trial if they want to avoid prison time, because they won’t be getting more sweet deals from his office.
It’s a shame he’s treating this important change in policy more like a publicity stunt than a thoughtful commitment to address the county’s share of Arizona’s sky-high crime problems.
Tribune writer Christian Richardson reported Wednesday that county prosecutors will no longer offer probation sentences in plea bargains for most felony defendants who already have one felony conviction on their record.
Thomas wants to confront Arizona’s unfortunate position of having the highest crime rate in the country, as determined by comparing FBI Uniform Crime Reports. He’s relying on a clear correlation between more prison incarcerations and lower crime rates throughout the United States,
While Pima County has followed a similar policy for two decades, Thomas’ decision will have an enormous impact because Maricopa County sends seven times as many convicted felons into the state prison system as our southern neighbor. Thomas acknowledged more defendants probably will seek trials instead of plea bargains. But he estimates another 2,600 felons will be sent to prison each year.
Given the scope of what could happen, Thomas should have sat down with court administrators and the state Department of Corrections to explain his intentions and to discuss how much time they might need to request additional resources and to make other changes to prepare for a new influx of trials and inmates. Instead, Thomas merely warned them he would change policy in 60 days and expected they would somehow be ready to cope. That’s not likely at a time when the state prisons are struggling with a workforce crisis that has left far too many positions vacant.
When Gov. Janet Napolitano objected to the additional cost that Thomas’ new policy could impose on the state (an estimated $53 million), as Capitol Media Services reported Thursday, Thomas should have offered to meet with the governor to hear her concerns and to explore alternatives. Instead, Thomas threatened to sue Napolitano if she makes any move toward charging Maricopa County for those additional costs.
Thomas is right on the principle of the issue — the state is responsible for incarcerating convicted felons. But Thomas would accomplish more to protect public safety in the long run by working with state and local agencies to overcome the challenges in implementing his new policy. Right now, he is arrogantly insisting they be prepared within two months for a plan that he has been able to work on for nearly two years since he took office.