Retiring Mesa chief magistrate leaves strong legacy The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Retiring Mesa chief magistrate leaves strong legacy

Retiring Mesa chief magistrate leaves strong legacy

By Jim Walsh
Tribune Staff Writer

Mesa Presiding City Magistrate Matt Tafoya and Mesa Municipal Court Chief Administrator Paul Thomas spent more than a decade carrying out vision of court reform long before it became trendy.

They removed obstacles to justice for the disadvantaged, based on a desire to help people help themselves by addressing the root causes of why they were landing in jail cells over and over again.

Mental health issues. Substance abuse issues. Homelessness. All of these life-altering problems were addressed by specialty courts set up by Tafoya and Thomas over a 15-year period after a voter-authorized bond issue replaced an over-crowded, outmoded courthouse with a new one designed to help Tafoya and Thomas carry out their vision.

Tafoya, 73, retired on June 30, ending a 17-year era that included the new courthouse and a long list of changes in how municipal courts are typically run.

The court deals mainly with misdemeanors, the kind of crimes typically committed by the homeless or people with addiction issues. Tafoya’s and Thomas’ efforts aimed to incarcerate defendants only when necessary.

Instead, the Mesa Municipal Court would offer a hand up, not act as a hammer to pound defendants into pointless jail sentences as punishment for minor crimes, only to have the defendants reoffend hundreds of times because their behavioral issues were not corrected.

Tafoya and Thomas rolled out their reforms one piece at a time, often as a pilot project funded with a federal or a state grant.

“It takes a little courage to do these things. You put yourself at risk. But we did not think we did anything we could not justify in many respects,’’ Thomas said.

“What I am proud of is that we never stopped having projects to improve the system,’’ Tafoya said.

Tayofa easily could have retired a decade ago, using the new courthouse and its dedication by now-retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as his crowning achievement.

But the unassuming Tafoya was far from done, although he now reluctantly accepts that he has reached the right time in his life to leave.

“There was too much to do and we were moving. We were making the system better. A lot of dreams came true,’’ Tafoya said. “We didn’t ask for permission, we just did it.’’

“It was like a gift from God. We just took off, man, we got a lot done.’’

Tafoya said he often told people that his worst day on the job would be when he retires, but the recent death of Judge Richard Garcia, a close friend who had worked with him for years at the courthouse, had a sobering impact.

“There’s a time when you have to let the new energy come into the court,’’ Tayofa said.

Thomas, 70, is considering retirement sometime in the near future.

Tafoya and Thomas reorganized the court, creating two arraignment divisions where the goal was to resolve misdemeanor cases as quickly as possible.

“We wanted to settle cases at arraignment rather than have them accumulate in the trial division,’’ Tafoya said. “We have a prosecutor, a defense attorney and a judge. Whatever they want to do, we do.’’

During 2019, 3,286 out of 4,833 cases filed, or 67 percent, were resolved at arraignment with plea bargains, with many people not wanting to come back a second time and others not showing up, generating an arrest warrant.

The remaining cases were sent to the specialty courts that were the focus of Tafoya and Thomas’s’ reforms: 130 to Community Court, 70 to Veterans Court and 90 to the Rule 11, or competency court.

“Here’s what needs to change, this is what needs to be done to make the system better, let’s get it done.’’ Thomas said.

Working as a team for most of Tayofa’s run as presiding magistrate, Tayofa and Thomas pursued a series of groundbreaking approaches.

A Veteran’s Court gave former military personnel a second chance to straighten out their lives, connecting them with substance abuse programs and housing programs aimed at eliminating homelessness.

A Rule 11 court gave defendants access to mental health examinations to determine if they were competent to stand trial, eliminating needless delays and jail time.

The two men also introduced electronic monitoring, releasing defendants charged with lesser crimes with an electronic bracelet monitoring their movements rather than sending them to jail and racking up hundreds of dollars in jail costs.

They developed a community court where defendants, many of them homeless, who had been arrested hundreds of times for nuisance crimes received counseling and other services to become self-sufficient.

“When the homeless sit in the community court, they pay attention,’’ Thomas said. “The issue of guilt or innocence is not an issue in community court. You are there to provide services.’’

Tayofa said he realized that many of the underlying problems for defendants in community court focused on mental health and substance abuse and that patience was required.

He knew it was not possible to expect every defendant to make the changes necessary in their lives immediately even though representatives of social service agencies were in the court willing to help them.

“Our philosophy was that there are no failures. Maybe the timing is not right for that person. It may not be that person’s time,’’ Tafoya said.

Thomas said a lack of affordable housing reduced the program’s effectiveness in getting people off the streets. Homeless defendants completed the process in court, including counseling, but still had no place to live.

“It’s been a disappointment to some extent,’’ he said, “but part of the court’s mission is to identify the gaps in services that the community needs to supply.’’

Mesa Mayor John Giles praised Tafoya’s accomplishments during his long career, which was preceded by decades of service in Phoenix Municipal Court.

“It’s an amazing career, an outstanding career, for the city of Mesa,’’ Giles said.

City Council is following Tafoya’s advice and will fill his position with an internal candidate already familiar with the court.

“We’ve got a very strong bench from which to choose,’’ Giles said.

Tafoya also inspired praise from state Chief Justice Robert Brutinel and the state’s top court administrators.

Marcus Reinkensmeyer, director of the court services division of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, singled out the community court program as an important part of Tafoya’s legacy.

“Through Judge Tafoya’s highly collaborative team approach, the community court makes community services and rehabilitation available to individuals in dire need.  This is just one example of Judge Tafoya’s many lasting contributions to our justice system, during his many years of dedicated service on the bench,” Reinkensmeyer said.

Dave Byers, director of the Arizona Administrative Office of the Courts, said, “Judge Tafoya was one of Arizona’s judicial pioneers in bail and mental health reform. He always took a creative approach to solving problems and with heartfelt concern for Mesa’s citizens.” 

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