Living in Arizona is odd, to say the very least. Folks with some of the most progressive politics live side-by-side with people who read about the days of segregation and think “more of that, please.” Unfortunately, a lot of those people go on to hold public office, and we wind up with situations like the one in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, where advocates say there has been a prolonged history of harsh sentencing for Black and brown defendants.
According to the Arizona Republic, over 400 people were arrested in Phoenix last year during mostly peaceful protests against police brutality. The protests were spurred both by the death of George Floyd, as well as Dion Johnson, who was killed by a state trooper last May. A protest on Oct. 15 saw 15 people arrested and charged with street gang activity, a severe charge often brought against Black and Latino defendants.
While Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel dropped the charges and placed April Spondel, the prosecutor who filed them, on administrative leave in February following months of complaints from activists and defense attorneys, advocates in the state say these harsh sentences are nothing new.
The African American Christian Clergy Coalition told the Republic that they have repeatedly met with both Adel and her predecessor, Bill Montgomery, to discuss frequent complaints from their clergy members that the county attorney’s office charges Black defendants unfairly.
“AACCC believes the actions inside the county attorney’s Office need continual monitoring. We have witnessed the unwarranted charging of young African-Americans with felony gang activity while they were peacefully protesting,” the group said in a statement. “Even though those charges were ultimately dropped, our perception of the MCAO being fair and just was challenged further.”
Janelle Woods, founder of the Black Mothers Forum, told the Republic that she feels like the meetings her organization has had with the county attorney’s office have felt mostly performative. “While they have listened, they haven’t truly heard us,” she said. “I believe it’s almost like checking off a box. ‘OK, we met with them. We are not going to do anything they want us to do because we don’t feel the need to do it.’”
From the Arizona Republic:
Data on convictions and on the demographics of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office add weight to their assertions that Black and Hispanic people are treated more harshly.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona released a report in June 2020 of data on prosecutions under former County Attorney Montgomery. White people prosecuted in Maricopa spent less time in jail than people of color, an average of 775 days. Black people spent an average of 1,004 days.
White people were more likely to have the county decide not to file criminal charges or to have their cases dismissed than people of color. White people also paid less fines at an average of $1,701.45 while Hispanic people paid an average of $2,348.98.
In October, The Arizona Republic asked Adel about MCAO’s racial disparities among its prosecutors. At the time, 84% of the prosecutors in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office identified as white. Of 360 total, the office had three Native American, six Black, 14 Asian and 30 Hispanic attorneys.
Adel was asked last week if she believed systemic racism was present in MCAO’s prosecution practices. She did not say.
While the charges against the 15 protesters brought renewed attention to the issue, this is a problem that has been plaguing Phoenix residents for well over a decade. South Phoenix is, well, not the most economically developed area, and it has many Black and Latino residents.
So obviously in the eyes of prosecutors, law enforcement, and white people, this automatically translates to: “GANGS.”
Look, I’m not going to paint a rose-colored image and act like gang violence doesn’t exist, but a look at the flimsy basis of a lot of these charges sends the message that the county attorney’s office considers any time three or more Black people are together to be gang activity.
Take for example the case of Jarmarkus Anderson, who was 17 when he and several others in his community were arrested by Phoenix police during a crackdown to combat a surge in violent crimes. Anderson was a graduate of Paradise Valley High School, a Phoenix College student and a Boys and Girls Club of Metropolitan Phoenix’s “Youth of the Year” honoree.
None of that mattered when police claimed that his grandmother’s home was a “gang hangout spot,” and that Anderson allegedly was dressed in gang colors when selling drugs to an undercover cop. “There was drugs in the neighborhood, but a lot of people wasn’t selling them,” Anderson told The Republic. “A lot of kids, especially people my age, wasn’t selling.”
In 2010, indictments were filed against Anderson and 34 other defendants, the majority of whom were Black. Funnily enough, Spondel was the lead prosecutor who filed those charges.
From the Arizona Republic:
Anderson, one of the defendants, was a basketball player for Central Arizona College and Phoenix College. The clean-cut image Anderson, now 30, created for himself was tarnished when he was convicted.
At 20, Anderson was sentenced to three years of probation. His brother also was convicted and received nine years in prison for similar charges.
Many defendants said they regretted signing plea deals, according to records, including Anderson.
Even though Anderson did not have to serve time in prison, the stigma of having a gang-related conviction on his record derailed his life. He had hoped to become a pharmacist but is now a furniture store manager.
Nothing like ruining the lives of children so a white woman could feel like she was doing her job.
So what has the county attorney’s office done to try and rectify the situation? Y’all know damn well the answer is jack shit. While Adel told the Republic in October that her office would be hiring a diversity, she didn’t respond to their request five months later to see how the hiring process has gone. Sounds about white.