Arizona is Falling Behind in Criminal Sentencing Reform, and Suffering as a Result

By: J. L. George

Arizona has the fourth largest prison population per capita in the country, with 585 incarcerated persons per 100,000 state residents.[i]Additionally, since 2000, the prison population has increased steadily by a total of 60 percent.[ii]In comparison, the country-wide average at the time was just 444 incarcerated persons per 100,000 residents—a record low since 1997.[iii]One might presume the prison population is increasing due to higher crime rates. However, crime in Arizona has decreased by 26% over the last decade.[iv]Additionally, one might argue that the reduction in the crime rate is due to the increase in imprisonment. However, in California, Utah, Nevada and Colorado, as imprisonment rates have decreased in recent years, so too have crime rates, which research suggests is likely due to the states’ successful uses of alternatives to imprisonment.[v]With an annual budget of over one billion dollars, Arizona’s Department of Corrections uses 11% of the State’s General Fund to pay for its steadily expanding prison population, and there is no indication that the population growth will abate in the coming years.[vi]

A recent report released by bipartisan political organization FWD.us suggests Arizona’s harsh sentencing policies might be to blame, and the available data appears to support their claim. Despite Bill Montgomery’s claims that “Arizona has been a treatment-first state since 1996,” the data shows a significant increase in the number of offenders being sentenced to prison for their first felony conviction (23% in 2000 compared to 41% in 2017), as well as the percentage of first-time offenders being sentenced to prison for non-violent offenses (45% in 2000 compared to 66% in 2017).[vii]In addition to the increase in the number of people being sentenced to time in prison, there has also been a significant increase in the average length of incarceration for prisoners in Arizona.[viii]The data shows that, although more people are being sentenced to prison for less serious offenses, they are also being sentenced to longer prison terms than in the past.[ix]

It is important to note that drug-related accounted for over half of all non-violent offenders being sentenced to prison in 2017. This is a significant increase from the amount of non-violent drug-related convictions that accounted for incarcerations in 2000, and is likely due to the passage of Proposition 301, which “allowed judges to sentence people to prison for a first or second conviction for possession of ‘dangerous drugs,’ an Arizona designation that includes methamphetamine.”[x]Prior to Proposition 301, individuals with first and second time convictions could only be sentenced to probation and treatment programs. Since Proposition 301 was passed, the number of individuals sentenced to prison for possession or use of “dangerous drugs” in Arizona has almost tripled.[xi]

Through all of the “tough on crime” slogans and policies, Arizona residents are left to suffer the consequences of harsher sentencing financially and societally. The increases in both the number of people sentenced to prison and the average length of prison sentences mean that the number of prisoners entering the system far outpaces the number of prisoners being released. This severe imbalance costs taxpayers additional millions of dollars each year.[xii]While Arizona continues to allocate more financial resources to its Department of Corrections each year to account for the ballooning prison population, all of Arizona’s neighboring states, except New Mexico, enjoy a significant savings of several hundred million dollars in their annual costs of incarceration as compared to Arizona.[xiii]Furthermore, studies show that longer prison sentences do little to deter crime, and frequently lead to higher rates of recidivism.[xiv]More specifically, and most relevant to Arizona, drug-offenders are the least sensitive to longer sentences.[xv]

Since the available evidence shows that incarceration on this extreme level does little to protect society from crime while costing taxpayers significantly, it is difficult to understand why Arizona refuses to adopt more reasonable and effective sentencing methods. Until it does, Arizona will continue to suffer the consequences of mass incarceration while neighboring states relish the financial and social benefits of lower crime rates and decreasing rates of incarceration.

[i]Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2016, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p16.pdf(this is the most recent year with available data).

[ii]Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The High Price of Prison Growth, https://www.fwd.us/news/arizona-imprisonment-crisis-part-1.

[iii]Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2016, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p16.pdf(this is the most recent year with available data).

[iv]Arizona Department of Public Safety, Crime in Arizona Reports,https://www.azdps.gov/about/reports/crime(calculated using reports from 2007 and 2017, the last available year for data).

[v]Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The High Price of Prison Growth, https://www.fwd.us/news/arizona-imprisonment-crisis-part-1.

[vi]State of Arizona Executive Budget Summary: Fiscal Year 2018, https://azgovernor.gov/sites/default/files/governor/documents/executivebudget-summary.pdf

[vii]Bill Montgomery, Drug Sentencing in Arizona – reality versus rhetoric, Arizona Capitol Times(Aug. 17, 2017), https://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2017/08/17/drug-sentencing-in-arizona-reality-versus-rhetoric;Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The High Price of Prison Growth, https://www.fwd.us/news/arizona-imprisonment-crisis-part-1.

[viii]Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The High Price of Prison Growth, https://www.fwd.us/news/arizona-imprisonment-crisis-part-1.

[ix]Smart Justice, ACLU of Arizona, https://www.acluaz.org/en/campaigns/smart-justice (referencing data showing prisoners sentenced in 2016 served 31% longer prison terms than those sentenced in 2009).

[x]Arizona’s Imprisonment Crisis: The High Price of Prison Growth, https://www.fwd.us/news/arizona-imprisonment-crisis-part-1.

[xi]Id.

[xii]Id.

[xiii]Id.

[xiv]Five Things about Deterrence, National Institute of Justice, https://nij.gov/five-things/pages/deterrence.aspx

[xv]Longer jail sentences do deter crime, but only up to a point, The Economist(Mar. 29, 2016), https://www.economist.com/free-exchange/2016/03/29/longer-jail-sentences-do-deter-crime-but-only-up-to-a-point.

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