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Marc Victor's opinion of Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas

Written by Subject: Criminal Justice System
County attorney gets tough; defenders get rich

Jill Redhage, Tribune

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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.”

1 Comments in Response to

Comment by Carol Jarrett
Entered on:
My name is carol Jarrett and my story goes like this in Jan.2003 my husband Keith went to see his primary care physician complaining of fatigue, loss of weight, not wanting to eat, and loss of libido, his Dr. told him he needed testosterone shots and gave him one that day, he sent my husband for lab work, but not to check his testosterone levels the test came back showing my husband had hepatitis c and was sent to a liver specialist, the specialist did a biopsy and found damage to the liver and faxed a letter to the primary care Dr that my husband symptoms were hepatitis c related, neither Dr told my husband this and the testosterone shots continued, a few months had passed and my husband asked the nurse giving the shots if it was normal to feel horny all the time, she laughed and said most men like feeling horny all the time, as time went on my husbands testicles started getting sore he told the Dr and the Dr told him he had a backache and that is why they were sore, my husband asked the if there were any side effects to the testosterone shots and the Dr said no, Then in May 2004 I was talking to my husband and he said his testicles were so sore he could not even wash them in the shower, he was also getting severe headaches I asked him what his levels were and he replied what is that I explained that the Dr does blood work and he can tell how much his testosterone is in his system, he said that blood work had never been done, I told him to go to the Dr and ask that his levels be checked on him the Dr looked through his chart and realized blood work had never been done on my husband, the Dr did not give my husband his shot and sent him for lab work his testosterone level came back at 877 which is over the top of the charts for levels he started giving my husband half a dose for about 6 weeks then went down to one-quarter of a dose on 8/30/04 my husband had lab work done his levels were 1324 and free testosterone was 27.80 way off the charts. during the height of the testosterone shots my husband had gone into the yahoo chat room and at first just watched conversation it was an adult chat room so it was about sex, as his levels rose he started clicking on a name and people would send him pictures thousands of pictures my husband was just obsessed with collecting the pictures it did not matter what they were ( he had pictures of women taking a crap) he did not delete pictures or send them to anyone he just collected them, his brain on the testosterone just wanted pictures, some one had sent him child porn, he did not send any nor ask for any to be sent to him this was all shown when the police checked the computer he was asked if he had some by someone on line and he said no I don**Q**t. My husband is now serving 5 years and lifetime probation as a pedophile because the county attorney scoffed at the 2 expert witnesses we had on testosterone and the physcologist who said my husband is not a pedophile it was the testosterone, he had never been in this chat room before and when he started getting pulled of the shots he was not going in there as much and eventually not at all, in dec. of 2004 his testosterone level was still at 810 he was 51 years old testosterone is metabolized in the liver and his was damaged so it was not getting metabolized correctly. My husband took the plea deal because everyone including his lawyer was telling him he would get 122 years if he did not take the deal, but after his incarceration a man was busted after trying online to get a minor to have sex and take pictures he went to meet her and got arrested he got a suspended sentence and 10 years probation now the prosecutor Ronald Debrgida jumped in on a case he was not even the prosecutor on and said in the best interest of justice took five counts away from a man who had child porn videos and pictures on his computer, and this was after the jury found the man guilty, who gets justice does it depend on money or stature in the state, child porn is a problem but how can the sentence for one with no medical evidence be sentenced less or given a break when the person with evidence that proved he was not on line for child porn get the book thrown at him? Or does it even matter anymore


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