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FREE TO KILL: New set of rules proposed for magistrates after violent felons are released

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: May. 2, 2022 at 10:41 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Criminal justice reform in Pima County is under scrutiny and the Board of Supervisors is again tackling the issue at their May 3 meeting.

They’re scheduled to vote on a proposal that addresses concerns with magistrate judges.

This is the fourth back-to-back board meeting tackling this topic.

The supervisors are deciding whether to renew the 10-year Intergovernmental Agreement that allows city court magistrates to also handle all felony cases right after an arrest.

Magistrates usually just handle misdemeanors.

Law enforcement leaders told the board the current system needs to be fixed because decisions as to who stays in jail and who doesn’t are not consistent.

Violent felons, released from jail over the past two years on low bond, are now sitting in jail accused of murder.

Tucson Police chief Chad Kasmar is worried because the murder rate shot up last year to 93 and this year is on an equally troubling trend: 21 so far.

“We are having multiple, multiple contacts with violent offenders, with drug dealers who are prohibitive possessors, and have been arrested four to six times with over 17 felony charges that are spending less than 24 hours in jail,” Chief Kasmar explained.

Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos echoes Kasmar’s concern.

Initial Court Appearances happen within 24 hours of any arrest.

“Felons have to go to initial appearances,” said Sheriff Nanos, ”Only one person can make that decision to release or to hold.”

That one person is a city magistrate.

There are 12 of them right now.

Tucson City Court supplied me with this list of names: eight magistrates and four special magistrates conducting initial appearances.

The 8 magistrates are Ryan Bleau, T. Jay Cranshaw, Geri Hale, Jeffrey Klotz, Julia Maldonado, Wendy Million, Antonio Riojas, Lisa Surhio.

The special magistrates are Thomas Berning, Nikki Chayet, Karen Diebolt, Rosemary Panucho.

They handle a total of about 9,000 felony cases a year.

The judges have at least 17 years of experience in law.

Four have less than three years as a Tucson City Court magistrate: Bleau, Maldonado, Surhio, and Diebolt.

Some leaders want their work experience scrutinized, pointing to bad decisions that they say led violent or deadly consequences.

Like, Robert Rosas, a violent felon released to Pretrial Services on a $5,000 cash bond despite an alarming history 3 decades long.

“There has to be some accountability. There is none with the city magistrates. They are not prepared. They don’t do felonies,” former chief Criminal Deputy David Berkman told the board.

But Presiding magistrate Tony Riojas disagreed and defended the judges saying they’re doing a good job.

“Most of them have substantial felony experience,” said Tony Riojas.

But there’s no way for the public or even the chief and sheriff to know if they’re doing a good job or if they have felony experience.

That information isn’t out there.

A request has been put in to get all the magistrates backgrounds.

It’s even more important now because the proposal changes the minimum qualifications to be a magistrate.

It stipulates that magistrates shall be law trained and have a minimum of 3 years felony prosecution and/or felony criminal defense experience.

Kasmar has said their backgrounds should be shared within and outside the walls of the judicial system.

“Let’s see what that experience looks like,” Kasmar said, “And then let’s see the volume of work and the decision that are ultimately made.”

The proposal appears to address that.

Guidelines are added stipulating magistrates who find a person to be a continued threat to the community shall make a record of those findings and may consider imposing a bond.

A data review will be conducted that includes all the courts with the data being made public.

And there will be annual training tacking bond recommendations and bias.

And then there’s the issue of whether to continue the IGA agreement for another 10 years.

Some leaders recommended only one year, but the term is only for seven months through December of this year.

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