Interview by Bea Lueck
Ohio native Kent Volkmer has been the Pinal County Attorney since January 2017. The Republican has pursued a system of “individualized justice” through his office over the last six years, looking at each case on its particular merits and encouraging the use of probation, diversion and specialty courts as an alternative to prison when appropriate.
Volkmer and his wife, who was his high school sweetheart, moved to Casa Grande in 2007 where he began practicing law at Cooper and Reuter LLP. He went on to form his own firm with two partners before running for office in 2016.
Grande LIVING: OK, let’s start at the beginning. Where’d you grow up, and what was your family life like?
Kent Volkmer: I grew up north central Ohio, about an hour north of Columbus and an hour south of Lake Erie, in the middle of a woods surrounded by cornfields for 5 miles in all directions. I have three younger sisters.
We came from a very sports-involved family, so all four of us played college sports. I played basketball, my oldest sister did too, and then my two youngest sisters played volleyball. My middle sister is about 6-foot-1, played Division One volleyball. My baby sister played Division Two volleyball, and my oldest sister played Division Three basketball.
When I went to college, I was a shooting guard. By the time I finished I put a couple pounds on and I played a forward, basically shooting guard forward. I would have to match up with people who were 6 feet 8 inches, which is interesting ‘cause I’m only about 6-foot-3. I attended what used to be known as Malone College. Now it’s Malone University, and it sits right beside the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Grande LIVING: Where did you go to law school?
Kent Volkmer: I went to the University of Akron. I went to law school because quite frankly I wasn’t ready for a real job. I did well in school, loved undergrad, loved the college experience. I technically graduated with a degree in liberal arts with a minor in chemistry. I was about a semester shy of being a triple major, double minor, but I knew I wanted to go to grad school.
My mom, who at that time worked as a cashier at the grocery store, developed a friendship with a woman who shopped there whose two sons ran a law firm in the small town that I grew up in. So I did a summer internship with them and thought, “Oh, this is kind of cool.” So I figured I’d go to law school and see where things kind of played out. And I went to the law school where my now-wife was finishing up her undergrad degree.
Grande LIVING: OK, so now you’ve graduated from law school, did you first take the bar in Ohio?
Kent Volkmer: I did not. So about the beginning of my third year, the end of my second year law school — law school’s three years long — I had a friend who got a job offer from the Stark County Prosecutor’s Office. I remember he was all excited because he got a job offer, and I was like, “How much money are you going to make, man?” And he said, “$38,500.” I went, “$38,500.” My wife, who was my high school sweetheart, by this time was a teacher in the Akron public system, was making $39,000. And I also have an MBA in finance.
Grande LIVING: The math isn’t working there.
Kent Volkmer: No, especially with an MBA in finance. So we started saying, “Hey, if we’re ever going to move anywhere, probably makes sense to do it when we’re young, no kids.”
Her best friend, her husband and I convinced my wife to move with us. So we looked at the Carolinas, but at that time, the giant hurricane had hit there. And my wife said, “No, Florida, no, Georgia,” because she couldn’t deal with the humidity. So we just started eliminating. And finally it was like Southern California or Arizona.
We couldn’t afford Southern California, so we’re like, “Let’s try Arizona.” Her friend loved Arizona and we said, “OK, the four of us are going to start our life adventure.”
We actually went to the city of Maricopa and put deposits down on houses. And then her friend surprises us with, “I’m pregnant,” and she says, “I can’t move to Arizona with a new baby and have no family support or anything else.”
So they backed out, and my wife and I decided we didn’t want to go to Maricopa because she got hired here in Casa Grande at McCartney Ranch Elementary School. So we looked here in Casa Grande, looked into a house and purchased one up in Ghost Ranch. And that was early winter of 2007.
I applied to take the bar in Ohio, Michigan and Arizona because you must apply eight months in advance, and we really weren’t sure where we were going. I only took the one bar, obviously. I flew down in July of ‘07 and I passed the bar. I was a long-term substitute teacher at Casa Grande Middle School for the gap in between because you take the bar in July and you don’t get your results until the end of the year.
Grande LIVING: That prepared you for the county attorney’s office.
Kent Volkmer: I have no regrets doing it. I liked it. It was fun. It was interesting because I was just a kind of a long-term sub. And at the very end of that semester there was a job opening that was posted by Cooper & Rueter. And I was just kind of scrolling through Craigslist and saw it.
Grande LIVING: Oh, Craigslist, baby!
Kent Volkmer: I applied, I went and interviewed with Steve Cooper and Liz Rueter; they hired me. I think Jan. 16, 2008, is when I actually started.
After about four years, I decided I wanted to run my own law firm. I recruited two locals who were actually at the public defender’s office at that time, Josh Wallace and Cody Weagant. We opened Wallace, Volkmer & Weagant; that would’ve been in December of 2012. And we were quite successful for about four years before I ran for office.
Grande LIVING: So what was the impetus to running for county attorney?
Kent Volkmer: There were a few different things. One of the things that bothered me is I represented a grandfather, his son and his grandson all at the same time, for drug-related offenses in the criminal system. And I thought, our system isn’t working particularly well.
Then I had a case in which I got a not guilty verdict as a defense attorney, and as a defense attorney that should be the high point of your life. I remember the case quite clearly, and when I got the win, there was a part of me that said, “Good work, Kent,” and there was another part of me that said, “That’s not the right result.” And it left me feeling very awkward.
So you couple those issues with, at that time, my predecessor believed that the way to keep a community safe was to punish our way there. I didn’t believe fundamentally that was the way to keep a community safe. And I’m comparing that to the three generations of that family I’m representing, seeing that’s the mindset we’ve had for 60 years, and this is the fallout.
So I believe that there is a smarter way to do justice. Also, I’m a Republican. I am a fiscal conservative. I believe that every dollar we spend as a government entity, we should get value for.
And what I believed then, and I believe even more now, is we don’t get much value when we put people in prison.
It’s necessary and we have to use it. But that’s not the best use of our funds. It’s about $30,000 to keep somebody in prison. It’s about $3,000 to get them on probation.
Eighty-three percent of people who go to prison are going to be arrested for a new offense. If you put them on probation the numbers are almost completely flipped. And that’s really what I ran on. And after four years, the public gave me another four years, and I’m hoping in a couple years they’ll give me yet another four years.
Grande LIVING: What are some of the changes that you’ve implemented in the county attorney’s office?
Kent Volkmer: There is a perverse incentive in the criminal justice system for prosecutors to charge the highest possible charge that they can because it gives us the maximum amount of leverage. And if you maximize the amount of leverage, you can force a plea deal because, hey, if you roll the dice and take a chance, you could be going to prison for 10 years.
If I offer you two years, suddenly that offer looks really reasonable.
There’s a big difference between the felony and the misdemeanor as well. So, one of the things that I implemented very early on is don’t charge felonies just because it maximizes leverage. I believe that’s manipulating the justice system.
The county attorney’s office already has a lot of power. We’re given a lot of authority. It doesn’t make sense that we manipulate systems to further give us an advantage. Instead, we’re called upon to be the straight shooters in the system.
I’m a firm believer in diversion. Real quick, the vast majority of people who commit a criminal offense are at the absolute low point of their life. Whether they’re in the throes of addiction, whether they’re suffering from mental health distress, whether they’re just at a bad time in their life. They’re usually drunk, high or having other issues going on in their life.
The criminal justice system historically has not done a good job of distinguishing between people who are truly dangerous and people who made a really dumb decision.
And I think justice is distinguishing between those dangerous people we need to lock up and those people that made a dumb decision. We need to figure out a way to help them and not brand them so they can’t get a job and provide for their family and be an outcast from our society.
Grande LIVING: Break the cycle of the multigenerational drug dealers.
Kent Volkmer: Exactly. So diversion is that opportunity where we’re saying, “Hey, you need a little help. You don’t need to be branded a criminal for the rest of your life.”
We do a battery of assessments. We don’t tell them what services they need to complete, but we send them to professionals who do the assessment and say, “Hey, this is what would benefit you.” And then we tell them, “Hey, you do what they said. You complete those services. Whether it’s anger management, whether it’s substance abuse, whether it is mental health compliance, whatever it is, you complete those consequences, do a little community service and we’ll dismiss your charges in their entirety.”
And it’s been a really successful program. In 2014, which is just an easy number for me, there were seven people offered diversion. Last year, we had just over 500 people that we brought into the program.
And the other thing that we did that I’m very proud of is we have really focused on individualized justice. Instead of assembly-line justice, what we focus on is the impact to the very fabric of our society.
Look at the person, look at the circumstances, look at the impact on our community, and then figure out what the appropriate consequences moving forward are. And that’s what I call the individualized justice model that we’ve been pursuing.
We’ve reduced the number of people going to prison by about 35% on an annual basis. We’ve reduced the number of felony charges in our community by about 20%. We’ve put about 40% more people on probation, yet we’re as safe as we’ve ever been.
And what we found is those people have responded incredibly well to that approach. So I’m very proud of that sort of philosophy. And frankly, nationally, we’re starting to get recognition.
I mean, I fly out a few times a year to talk with other groups and other entities about how you can make sure that your basic fundamental public safety responsibilities are being met without throwing everybody in prison. And that’s sort of a crazy idea because in today’s world, you either let everybody out and you hug them or you throw everybody in prison and you condemn them.
Grande LIVING: Like everything, the 80/20 rule applies in this instance. You have 10% at the low end, 10% at the high end, and then there’s that 80% that straddles the middle.
Kent Volkmer: Yes. But prosecutors are usually in those two 10% on either end instead of the 80. There’s very few of us that can get elected in the middle because generally people want an elevator speech — either “I lock up bad people,” or “I love people, and I restore people.” And this is a much more nuanced conversation.
Grande LIVING: In today’s world, how does the county attorney’s office deal with social media justice, which says, “Lock them all up?”
Kent Volkmer: The thing is, we have ethical rules that bind what we can and cannot say. So oftentimes there’s misconceptions out in the public about even the facts of the case that becomes very complicated for us. What I like to explain to people, when I have enough time, is justice is a very difficult or fickle concept because of depending on what side of the criminal justice equation you find yourself.
So you end up angering all sides. But that’s really what our responsibility is. Our ethical obligation is to be a minister of justice. We first have to define what justice is and describe how we meet it. And that’s really how we meet it. Because if I am just meeting the victim’s version of justice, I’m leaving everybody else out in the cold. If I am just meeting the defendant’s version of justice, I’m leaving the victims and everybody else out in the cold.
Grande LIVING: And then there’s the fourth side — the legislators have passed laws you are now tied to?
Kent Volkmer: Yes, it is difficult. Look, our legislators mean well, and I believe that in their minds they’re doing the right thing. But I think they tend to be prisoners of the moment.
They have a constituent that comes up and tells them a story that is outrageous, that offends the sensibilities of everybody. And their solution is, “Hey, we’re going to fix that problem.”
But when they go to fix that problem, the collateral consequences are not always considered. What you get is you get a system that we have right now where the vast majority of people, if I sat down and I went through every offense and told you what the consequences, most people would say that that doesn’t make sense.
For example, if you have two prior felonies and you sell one fentanyl pill, one, the presumptive sentence is 15.75 years in prison. If you kill somebody, if I pull out a gun right now and I shoot you between your eyes, a presumptive sentence is 16 years in prison.
Grande LIVING: A fairly recent change here in Arizona was the legalization of marijuana. What has that done for your office?
Kent Volkmer: For the most part, it’s not had an impact other than we have seen a dramatic rise in driving under the influence of drug cases. It used to be DUIs were primarily alcohol. Now the majority are non-alcohol related. They’re drugs or prescription drugs. Anecdotally, it feels as if in the majority of our fatal car accidents we find people had traces of marijuana in their system, and there is not a real good way for us to deal with it.
I think this year we’re actually focusing on a DUI awareness campaign where we’re really just kind of pushing the idea out to people. Because again, most people know, “Hey, if I have two or three beers, I probably shouldn’t drive. If I have a couple glasses of wine an hour I shouldn’t drive.” That’s sort of in everybody’s psyche.
But with marijuana, if I took a gummy, I don’t feel the effects as much. I’m fine. If I took my prescription medication, I think I’m fine to drive. And you’re not, and what’s happening is people are losing their lives and it’s becoming increasingly dangerous.
We have a lot of people on very few roads. If people are driving recklessly, or if their reaction time is compromised even a little bit, there’s this fallout of fatal accidents. More accidents and more serious accidents are occurring on a daily basis and more than we’ve ever seen before. And it coincides perfectly with the legalization of marijuana.
Grande LIVING: What about gun violence? Thankfully, we have not made national news in our area, and we’d like to stay that way. What can be done?
Kent Volkmer: So one of the things that I’m very proud of our community is how we come together. All of our chiefs of police, our sheriff and our office come together. We have a number of intel meetings that occur on a pretty regular basis.
We work directly with the Department of Corrections when we know that dangerous people are being released into our community. And a lot of agencies are being proactive saying, “Hey, we’re welcoming you back to our community. Don’t do stupid stuff. You’re not going to have issues with us.” And we’ve, we’ve been able to be very successful in being proactive.
All of our agencies have great relationship with our local schools. So when there’s an issue with the school, if there’s something going on, they’re very proactive about it.
Our law enforcement goes through active school shooter scenes. It’s basically a simulation where they say, “This is how we’re going to react.” So we’re doing everything we can to be prepared if it happens while simultaneously doing everything we can to prevent it from happening
Grande LIVING: What have we not covered that you’d like people to know about the county attorney’s office or yourself?
Kent Volkmer: So I think one of the things that we don’t always do a good job of as a community, as a county, as a state, as a nation, is we rarely celebrate our victories and our wins. Our county’s in a really good spot. Our crime is better than anybody else in the state, any big county in the state by far. Everybody loves Prescott, everybody loves Yavapai County. Their crime rate’s about one and a half times as high as ours.
Somebody who lives in Maricopa County is about three times as likely to be a victim of serious crime as our residents. Somebody who lives in Pima County is about four times as likely. And that’s the thing that I want people to remember.
There’s been a slight uptick since COVID, and we’re working on it right now.
The biggest issue we have is substance use and abuse. So we did an anecdotal, general review of the felony crimes that are being committed in our community. Right off the top, about 40% are the possession, sale or transportation of drugs. Again, marijuana’s not even illegal anymore. So you’re talking primarily meth, secondarily, fentanyl, and then cocaine is third. That makes up 90-some percent of all of our drug offenses. So that’s about 40%.
Then felony DUI is about 10% of our charges. Felony DUI means that your license has already been suspended for a DUI and you get another DUI, or you have a kid in the car when you get a DUI.
So now we’re at about 50% of our offenses. And if you calculate those offenses that were committed while somebody was under the influence. And when you add those offenses, like property crimes that somebody burglarized a house or somebody burglarized a car to feed their habit, suddenly we are about 85% of all of our crimes
The criminal justice system is not the best avenue to deal with substance abuse issues. The only thing I can do is put them in prison, put them on probation or give diversion. There needs to be a solution that doesn’t come from me, that doesn’t come from the cops.
So I am pleading with the public to work on public health solutions and other solutions that don’t involve arresting, incarcerating our way to safety.
We arrest an addict, we put them in prison, they get no treatment or minimal treatment, and they come back out no better than they were before. But now they’ve been removed from their community. They have no job, they have no car, likely no housing. And quite frankly, they’ve probably alienated their family because most people who go to prison are between 30 and 45 and have kids.
Somebody else has to take care of their kids, which falls to the family or the public. When they get out of prison, mom doesn’t want to bring them back into their home.
What we have is people going in as addicts, not getting any treatment, not getting any help and coming out worse than they were when they came in with fewer resources, less community support, less family support.
So we need to stop using the criminal justice system as the dumping grounds for people with substance abuse issues and mental health issues.
If we can find a way to give them treatment before they get to us, that’s our best chance of getting them the help they need to be successful members of our community.