Written in stone across the front of the Maricopa County Superior Courthouse is the statement, “The first duty of society is justice.” And while thousands of people pass under these words every day, few stop to think about how important these words are to our democracy.
For most, the idea that the fundamental function of government is to keep everyone safe is only relevant when government services are not readily available. During times of uncertainty, it becomes more important than ever that the criminal justice system has the ability to protect the community from those who seek to do harm.
At more than 1,000 strong, the employees of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office live these ideals every day. Working for an entity that is constitutionally mandated to serve the citizens of this county is something everyone in this office takes seriously.
In the past week, the work of MCAO employees has been extraordinary. While we are not on the front lines fighting this deadly pandemic in health care, we are on the front lines of a criminal justice system facing a crisis not experienced in generations.
We have been working around the clock to ensure the rights of defendants and victims alike are protected, while honoring our role to stop the spread of this deadly disease. Our office has reduced our workplace footprint by almost half. Prosecutors, paralegals and administrative support are using technology at home to do their part to reduce community spread of COVID-19.
The residents of Maricopa County can also be proud of the work being done behind the scenes to respond and react to this constantly changing situation. Comprised of the courts, law enforcement, jails and prisons, prosecutors, defense attorneys and victim advocates, citizens can be confident that the Maricopa County Criminal Justice System is operating in a collaborative and responsible manner.
I also applaud the steps leadership in the judiciary have taken to reduce the number of people in our courthouses. Latest numbers show that the Judicial Branch of Arizona in Maricopa County has reduced court visits by 40% in the past week with the use of technology. They have been able to temporarily modify business operations with the least disruption to services, while upholding everyone’s constitutional and statutory rights.
Within the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, I have directed staff to address the following priorities:
When charging cases, look at the nature of the crime, the criminal history of an offender, and input from victims; and then balance this information with the need to reduce the number of individuals interacting with the criminal justice system at this time.
Assess and respond appropriately to motions from defense counsel on a case-by-case basis who seek to modify release conditions related to complications from COVID-19.
Ensure sound legal advice to county departments as they face a myriad of legal issues never before considered when facing a crisis like this.
Work collaboratively to ensure victims have the ability to attend telephonic court hearings and keep them informed on the status of their case.
Assess the effects of social distancing expectations on diversion programs and those who seek treatment for substance abuse and/or behavioral health issues.
During times of public uncertainty, it is more important than ever that our criminal justice system operates efficiently and fairly.
We understand the totality of this pandemic is going to challenge us in ways we never could have imagined. However, we will weather this public health crisis without abandoning our duty to protect this community.
Let’s take care of each other and have confidence that we will continue to take care of you.
Allister Adel is the Maricopa County attorney.