Local Opinion: Reinstate Mandatory Law Enforcement Standards

Below is the author’s opinion and analysis:

Ross Zimmerman

On July 30, voters in the Pima County Democratic Primary Election must make an important choice for District Attorney, between incumbent Laura Conover and challenger Mike Jette. There are many issues at stake in the candidates, but managing the core prosecutorial function of the Pima County Attorney’s Office (PCAO) is paramount.

I was the first IT Manager at the PCAO from 1987 to 1994, helping to computerize the office. I learned a great deal about how prosecutors evaluate the evidence of a crime, decide whether there is sufficient evidence to charge a defendant, and then manage the process to determine guilt or innocence. Criminal proceedings should be conducted fairly for all involved, meeting the constitutional requirement for a speedy trial and other protections for defendants set forth in federal and state law. The PCAO needs a sufficient number of prosecutors on its staff to maintain a manageable caseload. There was considerable discussion about whether the PCAO was currently functioning adequately. I decided that I should evaluate the available data on caseloads and caseloads for myself.

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The Pima County vacancy summary shows 77 vacancies in the PCAO, 19.9% ​​of the department’s 386 positions, the second-highest vacancy rate among larger county departments. 32 PCAO positions have been unfilled for more than a year. If reports are true that the number of attorneys has increased from more than 70 in early 2021 to about 40 now, the vacancies are affecting a disproportionately large number of attorneys. I compared that to Maricopa County’s fiscal year 2023 turnover report. At the time of the report, vacancies would have been lower than turnover. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) had a turnover rate of 10.8%, a vacancy rate less than half that of the PCAO. MCAO has one of the lowest turnover rates of all large Maricopa County government departments. Crime statistics for the Tucson Police Department and Pima County Sheriff’s Office have been flat for the past few years. It seems that the PCAO is understaffed. Compared to the MCAO, it has staffing issues.

The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission (ACJC) releases Fill the Gap, a report that summarizes prosecution statistics for all counties. The ACJC sets 180 days as the upper limit for resolving a criminal case. In 2023, the median number of days to resolve a case in Pima County was 268. The median is the middle number in the sequence. That’s why half of the cases took longer than 268 days, probably much longer. Pima County has so many cases that last longer than 180 days that then-Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court Robert Brutinel met with then-Chief Justice Jeffery Bergin and District Attorney Laura Conover and ordered them to comply with speedy trial rules. The PCAO will no longer grant contingency (extension of time) cases. Attorneys tell me it’s very rare for the Arizona Supreme Court to issue such an edict. In a recent editorial, retired judge Deborah Bernini stated that PCAO lawyers commented, “There were not enough prosecutors to responsibly handle the caseload.” PCAO lawyers cannot keep up with the caseload.

If current District Attorney Laura Conover is not adequately performing the core role of PCAO, replacing her with a lawyer who is competent in the role and respected by the legal community should result in the office returning to a fully staffed attorney. Prosecutions will become more rapid, conforming to the law of the land.

On her campaign website, Laura Conover has 31 endorsements, mostly current or former elected officials. Mike Jette has 75 endorsements. His endorsements reflect a much broader spectrum of the community, especially the legal community. Conover’s list includes two practicing attorneys. Mike Jette lists endorsements from 24 current or former practicing attorneys, many well-known and respected. That makes me think Mike Jette will be able to fill the attorney vacancies on the PCAO.

District Attorneys are not members of the legislature that vote on laws or policies. They run the offices that keep our counties running. I reached out to people who know Mike Jette and they introduced us. We had an excellent conversation, with other good interactions since then. I believe Mike Jette will bring the Pima County Attorney’s Office back up to mandatory standards for criminal prosecution.

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Ross Zimmerman has a Ph.D. in entomology from UA, using quantitative methods. He worked in IT, ultimately specializing in network design and implementation at ATR, PCAO, TMC, and PCC from 1984 to 2017.