The Payson Town Council last week approved a year-long extension of a contract with an outside attorney, which could save the town $100,000.

Scottsdale Attorney Mark Iacovino and his partner Ken Holmes will handle town prosecutions for $110,000 per year.

The contract calls for the firm to handle the prosecution of municipal court cases, like traffic fines, support orders, orders of protection and misdemeanor crimes.

The town hired Iacovino on a temporary basis in January, when the town’s salaried prosecutor left. Last week, the council extended the contract for a year without discussion as a consent calendar item.

The town also contracts with the outside firm Pierce-Coleman and Associates in Phoenix to provide legal advice to the town attorney, which is a separate arrangement. Total costs for the town attorney’s office in the 2020-21 budget come to $471,000, a 5% increase from the current budget.

Iacovino’s bid said the $110,000 represents a roughly 50% savings over what the town spent to provide the same services in-house – which came to about $220,000. That included $95,000 for the in-house salary and $28,000 in benefits for the in-house town prosecutor, plus $54,000 in salary and $16,000 in benefits for a legal assistant. The town spent another $20,000 for a victim advocate.

The $110,000 contract would cover all those functions, but not the costs of office space, telephone lines, internet services or other resources already allocated to the prosecutor’s office.

Iacovino and Holmes have 55 years of combined legal experience, said the proposal.

Iacovino asserted that in the past three months the firm has worked through a backlog of pending cases and digitized and uploaded most of the paperwork into a cloud-based file management system.

“Due to these continuing measures, we are able to focus more time and energy on the primary objectives of administering justice and enhancing public safety.”

Prosecutors have enormous power in the current legal system. Some studies suggest that in Arizona about 90% of criminal cases are settled by plea bargains. An Arizona Supreme Court Task Force is currently reviewing the use and abuse of plea bargaining in state courts.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world and some of the longest prison sentences based on the offense – often with mandatory terms that give judges little latitude. However, prosecutors remain free to decide what crimes to charge. This means prosecutors have enormous leverage in offering offenders a much lighter potential sentence in return for a guilty plea.

Arizona imprisons about 877 residents per 100,000 residents, compared to a U.S. average of 698, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. That compares to an incarceration rate of about 100 per 100,000 in most of Europe. The U.S. rate is about nine times Europe’s and 50% higher than Russia. In the U.S., Arizona’s incarceration rate ranks #8. Minorities – including blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, have a much higher incarceration rate in Arizona than whites.

At any given moment, there are about 14,000 Arizonan’s in county jails – which would include many of the people whose cases are handled in municipal rather than superior courts. But in the course of a year, 117,000 people pass through county jails.

Iacovino assured the council his office will take its responsibilities seriously, when it comes to making the crucial decisions about charging crimes and striking deals.

“Mr. Holmes and I understand the power that the law places in the hands of the criminal prosecutor to determine the outcome of most criminal cases. We respect that power and the responsibility that comes with it. We strive always to exercise that authority in a manner that ensures that the interests of justice and fairness are served in every case,” he wrote.

“Our philosophy of individualized justice is balanced by our duty as prosecutors to promote public safety, order and compliance with state laws and municipal ordinances. To achieve the goals of the criminal justice system, a wide range of sentencing alternatives, punitive and remedial, are employed to address criminal conduct in a manner that is just and fair to the defendant, the victim, and to the community. These alternatives include not only jail time, fines and other monetary sanctions, but also restitution, probation, education, counseling, drug and alcohol treatment and community service.

“Justice for the community is a concept often overlooked by other prosecutors. Every year, a great deal of public resources are expended to maintain the criminal justice system. Achieving justice for the community requires that those convicted of crimes or serious traffic offenses be held responsible to pay back the public expense of operating the justice system that they necessitate,” wrote Iacovino.

Studies show that the lack of money to pay fines and fees is one reason that minorities and many low income offenders are far more likely to wind up incarcerated.

Payson’s 2020-21 budget predicts court fines and fees will bring in about $120,000 in the upcoming year, mostly traffic citations. The budget also envisions taking in some $33,000 in prosecution fees.

The total budget for the town attorney and magistrate court comes to $750,000 in the upcoming fiscal year, an increase of about 10% over the current budget.

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