Jill Redhage, Tribune
Business for Valley defense attorneys is booming. Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas has been cracking down on criminals since 2004, and public defenders have scrambled to keep up as prison populations have swelled.
“When Thomas came in, caseloads started going up much more,” said Tempe defense attorney David Cantor.
He said the trend started with former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, but attorneys saw a distinct caseload change with Thomas.
The number of criminal cases filed in Maricopa County Superior Court has risen every year since at least 2001. County prosecutors filed more than 28,000 criminal cases in fiscal year 2000-01. In fiscal year 2005-06, that number exceeded 39,000.
In the wake, some defense attorneys are gaining clients. Others have kept their workloads constant but charge higher fees for their services.
“We charge 50 percent higher fees because we have to go to trial, and trials are expensive,” said Larry Debus, a Phoenix defense attorney.
Debus said his firm grows about 20 percent each year.
“We get more and more business all the time,” he said. “We get more today because when more cases go to trial, more defendants want private attorneys.”
TRIALS ON THE RISE
Defense attorneys blame prosecutors’ undesirable plea agreements for what they feel is a rise in the number of cases going to trial.
“They’re overcharging for felonies that should be misdemeanors,” Cantor said. “Then they plea to the lead charge, but their lead charge is too stiff. This means everything goes to trial.”
Michael Freeman, an attorney with Wolf & Associates, agreed.
“Charges are more serious than they were two years ago for the same type of crimes,” he said. “For example, cases that should be charged as simple possession of drugs, or personal possession, are now being charged as possession for sale with a possible mandatory prison sentence.”
In November, Thomas said that for second offenses, he would only approve plea deals requiring a prison sentence. He estimated that would mean an additional 2,600 prison inmates each year, which would cost taxpayers an additional $53 million.
Tempe defense attorney Craig Penrod said more felony DUI cases are going to trial that should be settled with plea deals.
Penrod also said he saw prosecutors charge a man who sexually assaulted an infant the same way they charged stepsiblings who had consensual sex, because of Thomas’ “rote plea agreements.”
Another difficulty is that deadlines for plea agreements have been shorter recently, according to Mesa defense attorney Anthony Bingham.
But statistics indicate that the perceived rise in trials may be imagined.
In fiscal year 2000-01, 825 cases went to trial. That figure was 817 in fiscal year 2005-06, according to the Maricopa County Superior Court.
Prosecutors acknowledged that defendants are having to plea to harsher sentences.
“We offer plea agreements that we feel are fair, taking into account the defendant’s background, prior convictions, victim’s rights and the evidence,” said Barnett Lotstein, spokesman for the county attorney. “But we have no obligation to offer plea agreements.”
BUSY PUBLIC DEFENDERS
Freeman said he can control his caseload as a private attorney, and he hasn’t taken on more cases in recent years.
But he has had more opportunities, he said, “thanks to Mr. Thomas literally swamping all the public defender and court-appointed attorneys by the number of cases that he’s filing.”
Annual reports from the Maricopa County Public Defender’s Office show its caseload rising from 36,637 cases in 2001 to 46,315 in 2005.
By 2005, the office’s caseload warranted more than 286 attorneys, according to industry standards. But the office employed fewer than 234 attorneys, the annual report showed.
“Public defenders for the most part do a great job,” Debus said. “But they have 10 times as many cases as private attorneys. Public defenders have 50 to 100 cases at any given time. I do probably 20 cases in a year.”
Maricopa County Public Defender James Haas’ office did not return calls for comment.
COST OF JUSTICE
More cases mean more prisoners.
The state’s prison population is now almost 35,000. About 60 percent are from the Valley, according to the Council of State Governments Justice System, a nonpartisan organization.
That number could grow by 52 percent to reach 56,660 by 2017, the organization reports, meaning an extra $3 billion for taxpayers.
Jim Austin, a prison system expert, said the state’s gettough attitude on all types of crime, including low-level offenses, is one cause for the rise. He also cited longer sentences.
“Criminal justice is not cost effective,” Lotstein explained. If decisions were made according to cost, he said they’d buy a new car for a victim of car theft instead of prosecute the case.
“It’s really a red herring to think that we should forgo justice to save money. The first priority of the justice system is to protect citizens. What is the cost to the public if a burglar is let back on the streets?” Lotstein asked.
Most defense attorneys don’t thank Thomas for making them richer.
“I would prefer to make less money and have more justice,” said Marc Victor, a Chandler defense attorney and criminal law specialist. Victor said he can charge $15,000 for work that his brother, a defense attorney in Massachusetts, can only charge $2,500.
“Andrew Thomas has been good for business, but bad for justice,” Victor said.
Debus framed the situation differently.
“I say he’s a great county attorney,” he said. “We charge higher fees and we get to go to trial more, which is what we do best.”