Shifting Priorities: An Interview with Maricopa County Democratic candidate Julie Gunnigle

By Amanda Knox with Christopher Robinson

Often, the most impactful criminal justice reform happens at the local level. And perhaps no one is more powerful in any community than the county prosecutor, who has the power to shape the destinies of its most vulnerable citizens. The changes they make ripple out and upwards, and can steer our conversations at the national level.

One such crucible in the battle between progressive and reactionary forces in the world of criminal justice is Maricopa County in Arizona. From 2006 through 2009, progressive George Gascon served as police chief of Mesa, AZ, the second largest city in Maricopa County. When Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio teamed up with ICE to conduct immigration sweeps that the U.S. Department of Justice later determined to be the most egregious example of racial profiling in U.S. history, Gascon condemned the policy and actively worked to protect the Latino communities in his jurisdiction. Gascon later went on to serve as police chief and then DA of San Francisco, CA, and is currently running against Jackie Lacey for Los Angeles District Attorney.

Meanwhile, back in Maricopa County, the ideological battle continues. Arizona Democrat Julie Gunnigle is running for Maricopa County District Attorney against the incumbent Republican Allister Adel on a platform of “tough” accountability and “smart” reform. 

Amanda Knox 

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you decided to devote your career to the criminal justice system. 

Julie Gunnigle 

Sure. So I was born and raised right here in Maricopa County. My mom is a career public school teacher. And one of the things that she taught me growing up was the value of public service. So I quite literally grew up in our classrooms, went off to college, got a degree in chemistry, thought I was going to help the world through science, and just really realized that I enjoyed people so much more. So I went to law school, where I ended up working for the professor who wrote the Rico statute that ended up taking down the mob, and I found what I believe to be a calling. I worked as a prosecutor in Indiana, where I primarily worked violent cases, domestic violence, child-on-child sexual assault, and then I went on to serve the public as a financial crime and public corruption prosecutor, where it was my privilege to prosecute politicians who are stealing money from the public. And when I look at what’s happening right here in Arizona, I see a big opportunity for someone who’s committed to reform to make the state a much better place for children and families to live. 

Amanda Knox 

Tell me about the person that you’re running against, the incumbent Allister Adel. Besides party affiliation, how do you distinguish yourself from her? 

Julie Gunnigle  

Well, I think there’s some big differences. So Arizona has had a string of poor prosecutors in this office. And one of the things that she said when she took office is that she was going to continue the legacy of the person who came before her, and it’s very much been in that vein. Arizona has a nasty legacy of how we treat our immigrant friends and neighbors. The biggest thing that comes to mind when I think about the differences between myself and my opponent is that one of the very first things that she did early on in her tenure was support SB 1070 copycat legislation that would have terrorized the community, that would have divided families, and that would have cost our state millions of dollars in settlements and lost revenue. I also think that there’s a big difference with respect to our priorities. I am so committed to financial responsibility in this office, and I’ve seen very little movement on some of the more wasteful practices of this office, incredibly long sentences, disbanding the Financial Crime and Public Corruption Unit, and using taxpayer resources to film campaign commercials, and that’s just the surface level things that are happening in that office right now. 

Amanda Knox 

I noticed your platform made clear that you want to prosecute political corruption and hold law enforcement accountable. Can you give me some examples of cases in recent history that you would have investigated and prosecuted differently or that you hope to prosecute in the future?

Julie Gunnigle

I can think of two just off the top of my head. One made national news, and that was Paul Peterson, our County Assessor. He had been barely showing up to work. He had been using Maricopa County resources to traffic children and women. And nobody said anything. The Board of Supervisors didn’t notice. And it wasn’t until the feds got involved that there was any sort of accountability for someone who had been misusing his post in one of the most egregious ways possible. So when I think about what this office can do with respect to public corruption, it’s things like allowing whistleblowers to come forward, knowing that these cases will be taken seriously, and actually training staff and personnel to deal with them. I think the same is true when it comes to police use of force cases, because we have some of the most violent departments in the entire nation. Back in 2019, Phoenix PD topped the national charts when it came to civilian shootings, and during that same period, this office charged nearly no cases. And I think I know why. Let’s be real. Prosecutors work hand in hand with police, and that results in a really cozy relationship. When you’re asked to turn around the next day and hold that same officer accountable, it’s incredibly difficult to do. It’s a conflict of interest. One of the things that this office can do is have an independent unit for police use of force that would solve the problem and would create better community trust so that everybody knows how these cases will be handled going forward. 

Amanda Knox 

What would you say are the root causes of crime in Maricopa County? And how do you plan on addressing them in your office? 

Julie Gunnigle 

I love this question, because this is what every prosecutor ought to be focused on. Every prosecutor ought to be looking at how they can work themselves out of a job, because lowering crime and lowering prosecution is exactly what we should be thinking about. So there are two big causes, time and time again, that we’ve seen. We know that one of the biggest root causes of violence is joblessness and lack of opportunity. And that’s particularly occurring now during the pandemic. And one of the others is a lack of opportunity, specifically within education. And this is something I’m passionate about. I’ve been the president of a medium-sized education nonprofit in town. And Arizona has underfunded its public schools. And I see it. My kids are quite literally in the same schools I grew up in, but they’re there with a dozen more classmates. They’re there in a system that doesn’t have music and art education. We see rises in crime. It’s our school to prison pipeline. We are funneling these kids into the criminal justice system, and we’re not providing an escape route where they can be successful. We spend, here in Arizona, more on our Department of Corrections than we spend on our three public universities. So if we were to be smart with our resources, if we were to be committed to treating particularly drug crime and crimes related to mental illness as the public health crisis they are, we can reinvest in our population, [and] what we’ll actually see is crime rates go down. 

Amanda Knox 

Do you think that it’s important to distinguish between violent and nonviolent offenders? And if so, how and why?

Julie Gunnigle  

I do, but I try to use that term carefully. Those end up being coded terms for race and making people feel otherized. In Arizona it’s been a big problem, because the way our criminal code is situated, our definition of violent crimes includes offenses that really have nothing to do with the dictionary definition of violence. So I try to be careful when I use that term. But I think that there’s big opportunities when we’re dealing with crimes that don’t involve the traditional definition of violence to really aggressively divert them from the system. 

Amanda Knox 

A lot of the root causes of nonviolent criminal behavior are also the causes of violent criminal behavior. How will your office grapple with violent crimes that are a result of these same root causes? 

Julie Gunnigle  

I agree that the root causes are the same, and that I think the treatment needs to be similar. I think we need to be looking at the criminal justice system holistically. And that when we talk about, especially drug crime, that we’re expanding our definitions to talk about drug-motivated crime and drug adjacent behavior, and what it is that we can do to provide treatments and support, and what we can do to engage in restorative justice for all cases, because that’s the biggest divide that I see, that we’re not actually working for justice. I’ve seen that in the crimes that I’ve prosecuted. I talk to survivors, for example, of domestic violence, and the conviction is different than getting justice. What people want is safety, they want to be made whole. And a conviction doesn’t necessarily get you there, whether or not it’s for a so-called violent versus nonviolent offense. I think the way to get there is to start conceptualizing it in ways that restore the community rather than just thinking about it in a way that calls for incarceration as a first response. 

Amanda Knox

What is your position on the myriad ways that the formerly incarcerated say that they are subjugated as second class citizens? Anything from registries to work, housing and educational discrimination, voter disenfranchisement.

Julie Gunnigle 

I think that every prosecutor in this office ought to go through a reentry simulation. Because I did and it changed my life. Listening to what it’s like trying to reintegrate to society and going through that. Are you familiar with those sorts of programs? 

Amanda Knox  

Actually, I’m not. 

Julie Gunnigle  

So you’ve got a room and you enter as someone who is recently released, and there are different tables set up all throughout this room, and your goal is survival and reintegration. So you have to go find housing, you have to find a job, you have to have transport, and you have to do all of this while checking in with the community supervision. And what it shows you is how you can have the best intentions, and how the system is designed to fail. And I learned very quickly how, because I was one of the first to go right back to prison on a violation during the simulation, that it isn’t set up for success. So when I think about what we need to do, in Arizona, the discussion has been around Ban the Box. I understand the good intentions behind that. But I don’t think that, at the end of the day, that’s a real answer, because what we’ve seen in jurisdictions that have banned the box is the same discrimination against black, brown and indigenous people who are reentering society. I’m a big fan of expungements. Our state doesn’t do expungements, meaning that there is no real second chance for folks, and I think that’s wrong. I think we need to provide a lot more support. We can advocate to end certain unjust registries, to make sure all of our newly released folks are able to vote, and we can argue for expungement, but those are all more bully pulpit type issues. What a prosecutor can actually do is help control that revolving door of re-entering prison. And one of the ways that that’s worked here is prosecutors have tacked on these things called probation tails, which basically means that someone, after being released, still has to report to a probation officer, who is different than a parole officer, and is not equipped to help provide the support that people need to re-enter. And as a result, they end up violating probation, recidivating, and end up right back in prison. And that’s something that the prosecutor can help control and curtail. 

Amanda Knox  

How do you hope to leave your mark on the criminal justice system and on Maricopa County?

Julie Gunnigle  

This is the third biggest prosecutor’s office in our entire country. And for decades, it has been under terrible rule. I want my legacy to be that I helped clean up the corruption and mess of this office, that I’ve ended its legacy of separating families and terrorizing immigrant communities. An era of truly exceptional government service, because that’s what we haven’t seen here in a really long time. I’d love it if during my leadership this office did not continue to make the news, and ended up being what it truly ought to be, which is public service and accountability. When we reform our criminal justice system, it’s going to end up being a net savings. In just taking us down to the median incarceration rate of the nation, we would end up saving $250 million a year, which is enough to give all of the teachers the 20% raise and bring down our class size to the average in the nation. I want to be part of that. And I think that’s lasting, meaningful change in our county, and that’s what I’d like my legacy to be. 

Amanda Knox 

So when are people supposed to be voting? 

Julie Gunnigle  22:48

Good question. So the registration deadline here in our county is October 5. Our ballots will be mailed October 7, and the last day to mail them back is October 27th.