ACLU Files Federal Lawsuit Against Maricopa County, Arizona

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In Arizona, the prison population has seen a rapid increase in size between the late 1970s and today, with more than 62,000 people in Arizona incarcerated at any given time in recent years. A recent report from Arizona State University shows that, in Maricopa County, police bias could be seen in the rates of traffic stops, arrests, and violent interactions with black residents as compared to white residents. None of these findings or statistics are outliers, they are small pieces of a larger picture of the mass incarceration crisis in America.

A significant contributor to the problem of mass incarceration that most impactfully affects Americans of color in Maricopa County is a policy that one local ABC affiliate calls “a fast-track pre-trial court process to coerce thousands of defendants to plead guilty before officials are required to turn over evidence.” The process involves prosecutors offering plea deals to defendants without disclosing the evidence being used to bring charges against them and with threats of harsher penalties if the defendant declines the first offer.

The ACLU of Arizona as well as the national organization has filed a lawsuit against the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office over their use of this process and explained their reasoning in a newly-released statement.

‘This “retaliation policy” coerces thousands of guilty pleas per year and violates the Constitution. Moreover, the retaliation policy applies regardless of the facts of any case, or even if the person might be innocent. Prosecutors also refuse to disclose any information beyond police reports — even if they have it — unless people give up their rights.’

Screen-Shot-2021-07-07-at-12.29.44-PM ACLU Files Federal Lawsuit Against Maricopa County, Arizona Activism Civil Rights Featured Politics Racism Top Stories
Image screenshot via Courthouse News

The lawsuit lists a number of examples in which this process was used in Early Disposition Courts (EDCs), the court in which this process takes place pre-trial, to coerce a defendant to plead guilty and accept a lesser sentence rather than exercise their constitutional right to a fair trial. The lawsuit points to language like the following as examples:

‘This offer will be withdrawn and no longer available after today’s hearing date… NOTE: County Attorney policy dictates that if the defendant rejects this offer, any subsequent offer tendered will be substantially harsher.’

The use of Early Disposition Courts (EDCs) was originally designed to speed up drug cases when arrest numbers for drug offenses ballooned as a result of the war on drugs, which has been shown statistically to have significantly impacted communities of color. Their continued use in light of the results of that war on drugs is unconscionable and violate the civil rights of American citizens.

According to Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Arizona:

‘MCAO has sabotaged the intended purpose of the EDCs and has used it to their advantage to secure quick convictions without regard for the constitutional rights of  people who are accused of crimes…These coercive pleas have serious consequences beyond sending people to prison — a felony conviction bans people from public housing, makes it difficult to secure a job, and can even bar people from voting.’