In a Blow to the Progressive Prosecutor Movement, Allister Adel Wins the Maricopa County Attorney Race
Voters decided to keep Adel in charge of the third-largest prosecuting agency in the country. She is recovering from emergency surgery for bleeding in her brain.
Meg O'Connor Nov 11, 2020
Republican incumbent Allister Adel has narrowly won the race for the chief prosecutor in Maricopa County, garnering 51 percent of the vote. Her victory comes as a blow to criminal justice reform advocates who had thrown their support behind her opponent, Julie Gunnigle. Gunnigle was ahead in the polls on election night, but as the remaining votes were counted throughout the week, Adel took the lead by about 36,000. Adel was also rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery for bleeding in her brain on election night after suffering a fall in her home a few days earlier. She remains in serious but stable condition, according to a spokesperson.
“We are humbled and incredibly grateful to the voters of Maricopa County for electing Allister Adel as county attorney,” Adel’s campaign spokesperson, Lorna Romero, said in a statement. “We must remain vigilant to ensure each person is treated fairly and equally in our criminal justice system, and that we are holding criminals accountable.”
Adel was appointed in October 2019 after her predecessor, Bill Montgomery, left for a seat on the state Supreme Court. As county attorney, Adel sets policies that influence what crimes are prosecuted and how, what charges prosecutors bring, what sort of sentences they seek, and who to keep in jail before trial. It’s a hugely significant role, since Maricopa County—home to Phoenix and nearly 4.5 million residents—is the fourth most-populated county in the country.
During her tenure, Adel has sought to distance herself from Montgomery’s legacy by making some changes at the office, but critics said these changes were superficial. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has a history of harsh charging and sentencing policies that saddle people with excessively long prison sentences. Charge stacking, or bringing multiple charges related to a single offense, has been commonplace. So has the use of “Hannah priors,” a practice unique to Arizona that allows prosecutors to charge people with multi-charge indictments as “repeat offenders,” even if they have never been convicted of anything in the past. Former County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who was in office from 2005 until 2010, also implemented a policy, known as “plead to the lead,” which required people to plead guilty to the most severe charges against them in order to accept a plea deal.
Montgomery led the office for almost a decade after Thomas’s departure. He was also a staunch opponent of statewide reform proposals who used his bully pulpit to sink legislative efforts to reduce sentences and implement punitive policies as a prosecutor.
Though Adel has stated that she is “different from [her] predecessor,” some of her charging and sentencing decisions have belied that claim. Her office is seeking to sentence a 61-year-old man with chronic respiratory problems and substance use issues to eight years in prison for failing to return a rental car on time. In her past as a prosecutor in the vehicular crimes unit, Adel sent a young man to prison for 51 years for causing a car accident that injured four people. In June, she told The Appeal she stands by that sentence. Through a campaign spokesperson, Adel also told The Appeal that she would continue to use practices like charge stacking and Hannah priors when prosecuting cases.
In the months leading up to the general election, Adel herself has announced a number of changes at the county attorney’s office, though some have dismissed her efforts as insufficient. In August, for example, Adel implemented a new policy allowing anyone who was arrested for simple marijuana possession to avoid prosecution if they obtain a medical marijuana card. Critics have pointed out that the policy only helps those who can afford a card.
“The critics are upset that she is a principled and effective leader who is actually getting things done,” Adel’s campaign spokesperson previously told The Appeal.
Her opponent, Gunnigle, had committed to making progressive reforms that would go much further, and pledged to reduce the county’s incarceration rate by 25 percent.
In a concession statement, Gunnigle thanked the voters and expressed support for Adel’s family while the county attorney continues to recover. “I am conceding on this race but we are not conceding on our values,” Gunnigle said. “This office continues to perpetuate some of the worst racial disparities in policing and prosecution in the country. It fails to acknowledge that Black lives matter by refusing to adopt a transparent and community involved process to handle officer use of force cases.”
Adel was endorsed by the Phoenix police union, and her victory is also a setback for police reform advocates, who have criticized her record on accountability. Adel has not committed to creating an independent unit to prosecute such cases, and has declined to bring charges against officers for killing civilians on multiple occasions. No charges have been filed in 52 of the 53 officer-involved shootings that have occurred in Maricopa County since Adel was appointed. Adel did file aggravated assault charges against Nathan Chisler, a Mesa police officer who shot an unarmed man in the hip last December.
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