PHOENIX — Rachel Mitchell is the interim, board-appointed Maricopa County Attorney. She will have the job until at least November but is hoping to be elected to the position in November.
The career prosecutor, who has filled in as the county attorney before, is eager to prove to voters she is ready for the leadership position.
Mitchell has acknowledged the office has had a number of high-profile controversies.
In a sit-down interview Tuesday, she told ABC15 that the current staffing shortage is one of her top priorities to address.
"We are 20% down right now, pretty much across the board as far as staffing and attorneys, and so one of the things that we need to do is build up those numbers," said Mitchell.
When the office is fully staffed, they have roughly 1,000 employees. A spokesperson told ABC15 that they currently have 208 vacancies office-wide. 63 of them are prosecutor positions, which is an 18% vacancy. The biggest need is in the administrative roles, which include paralegals, legal support, and administrative assistants.
The shortage has wide reaching ramifications, like overworked prosecutors with large caseloads, delayed trials, and a year-plus backlog of officer-involved shootings awaiting criminal charging decisions.
"It's not fair to the families to wait that long. It's also not fair to the officer. So we have been focusing on that," said Mitchell.
Just last week, she announced her first high-profile decision involving an officer-involved shooting. Mitchell announced her office would not be bringing charges against Chandler Police Officer Chase Bebak Miller, who shot and killed 17-year-old Anthony Cano in January 2021.
The decision is not a surprise. Since the beginning of 2017, records show MCAO has only filed charges in one officer shooting. Prosecutors have declined in pursuing charges in 206.
"Why is it so rare for prosecutors to pursue charges against police," asked ABC15's Zach Crenshaw.
"This is a rapidly evolving situation, and the standard is not a reasonable person watching it in their office. It's a reasonable police officer on the scene," said Mitchell.
Mitchell said she also hopes to address low bonds that often lead to a "revolving door" where certain people are able to repeatedly commit crimes with little to no short-term consequences.
"We know of situations where somebody received their initial appearance in the morning and was back on the initial appearance calendar in the evening, having committed a felony in between. That's unacceptable. So that needs to be addressed," said Mitchell. "And one of the things that we're doing to address that is we're collecting statistics, so that this is not just anecdotal. We want to be able to show statistics to the court to say this is what we're seeing."
Then there is the topic of abortion.
If Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court, as suggested by a leaked draft opinion, Arizona law, and the county prosecutors that enforce it, will become much more important in determining how accessible or difficult it is to obtain an abortion.
"If Roe is overturned, would you be prosecuting providers and people seeking abortions," asked Crenshaw.
"I looked into the personhood laws as well as the other law that was passed this year - the 15-week ban - and I think what people are missing is that the legislature has shown a clear intent that people seeking abortions are not to be prosecuted," replied Mitchell, who later confirmed she does not intend to prosecute individuals.
However, unlike the lone Democrat running for the office, Julie Gunnigle, Mitchell did say she would enforce the state law when it comes to potential prosecution of providers.
"The legislature has made a clear statement with the bill that they passed. So we would look at each case that came in. What I'm not going to do is I'm not going to sit here and say, I will just absolutely not follow the law in that regard. That's not my role," said Mitchell.
ABC15 spoke with Mitchell because she is the acting county attorney, and is currently making decisions that impact all of the county's residents. We are committed to covering the other candidates in the coming weeks, including Republican and longtime MCAO prosecutor and Bureau Chief Gina Godbehere and Democrat Julie Gunnigle, who narrowly lost the race in 2020.