Arizona’s budget troubles could prompt lawmakers to seriously consider changing criminal sentencing laws to reduce or slow the costly growth of the state’s prison population, two legislators said Tuesday.
Rep. Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford, said many of his colleagues’ fear of being labeled soft on crime has kept the Legislature from taking up the issue.
“We cannot afford the current policies that we have, nor is there the will in the Legislature to change it,” Konopnicki said.
But he and Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa, said that could change in 2011 due to steady increases in prison costs as the state is trying to close big budget shortfalls.
“Between policy and budget, we are headed to a major crash,” said Konopnicki, who will leave the Legislature in January. “The financial crisis is going to cause some people to take a good look at what we’re doing.”
Arizona has tough criminal sentencing laws, many implemented in 1993, and the state’s prison costs are now 10 times what they were 30 years ago, while the state’s population has doubled during the same period.
The Department of Corrections’ annual appropriation for the current fiscal year is $949 million, which is 11 percent of the current $8.5 billion budget and an amount larger than the projected shortfall of up $825 million.
Ash heads a House committee studying possible sentencing changes.
“We have a lot of good ideas out there,” Ash said. “I sense there’s a will to do things differently.”
Options identified by legislative budget analysts to cope with rising prison costs include expanding the prison system, diverting some offenders to treatment programs and probation, releasing some prisoners early and returning fewer parolees to prison for violations.
Konopnicki participated in a panel discussion organized by Arizona State University’s Morrison for Public Policy. Ash attended and spoke from the audience.
Though those two lawmakers each said they perceived the budget troubles created new impetus for consideration of sentencing changes, another Republican legislator recently said the options identified by the legislative budget analysts would receive scant consideration.
Democrats’ election-season criticism of Republican Gov. Jan Brewer for the July 30 escape of three violent offenders from a privately run state prison made sentencing changes a political issue, said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills.