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ACLU report: Racial disparities in sentencing of cases brought by Maricopa County Attorney's Office

The report found Black, Hispanic people spent more time being incarcerated than white people when prosecuted by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and more.


Arizona has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the U.S. and according to a newly released report by the American Civil Liberties Union, its largest county’s prosecution data shows racial disparities in the sentencing of Hispanic and Black people versus white people. 

The ACLU of Arizona obtained a dataset of all cases that were handled by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office from Jan. 1, 2013 through Dec. 31, 2017. The dataset includes 51,165 cases where a defendant was sentenced to jail, probation or prison for at least one day. 

The ACLU report notes five key findings: 

  • Black and Hispanic people spend more time being incarcerated than white people when prosecuted by the MCAO.
  • Hispanic people are sentenced to longer sentences for marijuana charges than Black or white people in Maricopa County.
  • Black people receive longer sentences for drug paraphernalia than Hispanic or white people in Maricopa County.
  • White people are more likely to have their case dismissed than Hispanic or Black people in Maricopa County. 
  • When ordered to pay a fine, Hispanic people pay “significantly” larger fines than white people.

The report says Black people prosecuted in Maricopa County spent, on average, 1,004 days in prison/jail and Hispanic people spent, on average, 990 days in prison/jail. White people sentenced in the county over the same time frame spent an average of 775 days in prison/jail.

According to the ACLU’s report, in 2017, Hispanic people represented 31% of Arizona’s population but Hispanic people comprised of 37% of Arizonans sentenced to prison. In the same year, the ACLU says Black people represented just 5% of Arizona’s population but 13% of Arizonans sentenced to prison.

For a marijuana charge, Hispanic people were sentenced, on average, to almost two months longer than white people. Hispanic people prosecuted by the MCAO spent 298 days in prison/jail on average, while white people spent 242 days in jail/prison on average and Black people, 246. 

For the charge of person possession of drug paraphernalia, Black people were sentenced to 844 days on average in prison/jail while Hispanic people were sentenced to 758 days on average and white people 749 days on average. 

White people were most likely to have cases dismissed by the MCAO, according to the ACLU’s report. In total, 11.2% of white people’s cases were dismissed in the data’s timeframe while Black people had 10.6% of cases dismissed and Hispanic people had 8.6% of cases dismissed.

Furthermore, white people had 10.5% of cases ultimately not filed by the MCAO in the dataset while Black and Hispanic people had 9.6% and 9.4% not filed, respectively.

When it comes to fines, white people paid less, on average, than Hispanic or Black people. Hispanic people paid $2,348.98 on average while Black people paid $1,771.92 and white people $1,701.45. 

“These findings are deeply upsetting, but, unfortunately, not unexpected,” ACLU of Arizona Campaign Strategist Analise Ortiz said in a release. “Racial disparities touch every aspect of the criminal legal system. Prosecutors are the most powerful actors in that system. The decisions prosecutors make every day contribute to these racially disparate outcomes: from setting parameters of plea deals to deciding which charges to pursue and which charges to dismiss. It is imperative that county attorneys take accountability for harm caused and take immediate steps to challenge racism within its ranks.”

The ACLU of Arizona has recommended the MCAO address the racial disparities in sentences in the county. The ACLU of Arizona says the MCAO should formulate new policies including one “to stop prosecuting simple drug possession charges, including paraphernalia charges, which the data shows have a disparate impact on Black and Latinx people.”

The data didn't come without hurdles. The ACLU says the ACLU of Arizona filed a public records request with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Oct. 2018 seeking race and ethnicity data on criminal case dispositions over the previous five years. 

The ACLU says the ACLU of Arizona sued the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in May 2019 for violating Arizona’s Public Records Law after the request was not completed.

The ACLU of Arizona asks the MCAO to share data with law enforcement and work with law enforcement to prevent racial disparities at the arrest stage. 

“The county attorney should create a “no-call list” of police officers who’ve committed misconduct, exhibited racist or biased views, been dishonest, or otherwise endangered their credibility and refuse to rely on the testimony or reports of these officers when seeking convictions,” the report says.

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office issued the following statement to 12 News regarding the ACLU's report.

"Without more closely examining the report, it is difficult to provide input on the specific findings released today. The criminal justice system is a huge system made up of individual cases and this office is committed to reviewing each case individually and assessing the facts and evidence that apply to that case.

Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel believes in smart justice to ensure the most dangerous offenders are held accountable but those who want to “do better and be better” are given the opportunity and provided the resources necessary to do so regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic status."

To read the full report by the ACLU, click here

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