PHOENIX (AP)- Maricopa County's top attorney says an aggressive prosecution tool that can leave illegal immigrants stranded in jail for months before the cases go to trial has helped reduce Arizona's record identity theft issues.
County Attorney Bill Montgomery said the prosecutions abide by state law. His remarks followed allegations Friday that his office has brought excessive charges against immigrants with false documents while letting college students with fake IDs off the hook.
Under state law, illegal immigrants found with fake identification documents can face felony charges of forgery and false identity that bar them from posting bail. Illegal immigrants convicted of felonies are turned over to federal immigration officials once the criminal case is resolved. Serious criminal convictions can make it nearly impossible for a person to obtain legal status in the United States.
Immigration activists say it's unfair to charge working immigrants with felonies, while college students found with fake IDs at bars rarely face charges.
The charges against illegal immigrants are an ``unconscionable application of the law,'' attorney Antonio Bustamante said during a news conference organized by the League of United Latin American Citizens outside Superior Court Friday morning.
The activists demanded less severe penalties, saying the arrests can result in months of jail time.
``Evenhanded justice is all we are asking for,'' said lawyer David Cutrer, who recently represented a man charged with identity theft and forgery after being arrested during a job-site raid. The 72-year-old warehouse worker spent six months in jail waiting for his trail to begin, Cutrer said. He was found not guilty, Cutrer said.
Montgomery quickly scheduled his own press conference to defend his office. He denied that his office had sought the serious charges to ensure immigrants would be turned over to federal officials and deported.
``We target conduct,'' Montgomery said. ``We don't target people.''
Employment-related fraud makes up the majority of Arizona's identity theft complaints, compared to bank fraud, credit card fraud and government benefits fraud. Since 2008, employment-related fraud complaints have dropped from nearly 3,000 cases to fewer than 1,000 in 2011, according to Montgomery.
Arizona was first in the nation for identity theft complaints in 2008, but dropped to fourth in 2011.
In 2006, Arizona voters approved a law that denied bail to illegal immigrants charged with serious crimes, such as kidnapping, human smuggling and gang activity.
Montgomery said identity theft is as serious a crime as those dangerous offenses because victims can spend months clearing their identity.
``The harm can be very real,'' he said.
Montgomery said the state's identity theft law prohibits using the statute to prosecute offenders under the age of 21.
People arrested for identity theft spend 90 days in jail on average while waiting for the case to be resolved, Montgomery said. In the majority of cases, suspects agree to a plea bargain for a lesser crime.
Montgomery said he doesn't initially charge immigrants with the lesser crime, which would allow them to post bail, because he wants to deter other offenders.
In all, 312 people were convicted of employment-related identity theft last year, Montgomery said.
The immigration proponents said they called attention to the issue after Tempe police put out a press release this week boasting that more than 1,700 fake IDs used by minors were seized in 2012.
``We say, `oh, they are just kids being kids,''' Cutrer said, noting that illegal immigrants are not afforded the same treatment.
Cristina Silva can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/cristymsilva