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Study: Arizona’s shrunken prison population is more violent

Arizona’s prison population is shrinking, but inmates are more violent, according to a study commissioned by the state’s prosecutors.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said Wednesday that the 438-page study that examines a recent decline in the prison population shows that Arizona’s tough sentencing laws have had the effect policy makers intended and should put an end to any calls for easing punishment on crimes in the upcoming legislative session.

“Our sentencing laws are sound,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery plans to hold a press conference today to make the study public. The Arizona Capitol Times obtained a copy of the study’s executive summary.

The study found that a two-year population decline correlated with:

• A 13 percent drop in illegal immigrants sentenced to prison

• A 23 percent drop in reported crime from 2006 to 2010

• A decline in arrests from 2008 to 2010 in 22 of 26 categories of crime

• A 41 percent drop in auto theft arrests from 2008 to 2010

And there were large drops in the percentage of prisoners admitted for drug possession, theft, auto theft, fraud and probation revocations from Maricopa County.

The Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council paid for the study, which was conducted by Daryl Fischer, a retired analyst for the Department of Corrections. It is an update of a 2010 study that found that 94.2 percent of the state’s prisoners were either repeat offenders or violent offenders and only 5.8 percent were first-time, non-violent offenders.

The prison population reached an all-time high on Oct. 30, 2009, of 40,778 and stood at 40,027 on Nov. 30. Fischer estimated the decline saved the state an estimated $197 million.

“The net result of these shortfalls is that the prison population has become (more) violent,” Fischer wrote.

The decline prompted Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan to cancel bidding for private prisons to house 5,000 minimum and medium security inmates. The department is going to re-open the bidding for prisons to hold 2,000.

Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa, was the main proponent of sentencing reform the past two years in the Legislature and he said he will be again this year, despite the study.

“It won’t end the debate because to end the debate you would have to say the status quo is okay,” said Ash, a former criminal defense attorney. “Anyone who has an opportunity to experience the criminal justice system will tell you the status quo is not okay.”

Last year he introduced a host of bills that died in committee and he plans to introduce them again.

Ash said some of Arizona’s punishment doesn’t fit the crime. For example, possessing child pornography can land offenders in prison for decades.

He said he plans on introducing a bill that would make a first time offense of possessing child pornography a low-level felony. A second offense would become much harsher.

Montgomery said the only change to the sentencing laws he wants to see is allowing prosecutors the option of offering to send people convicted of their second simple drug possession offense to a diversion program. Under the current scheme, diversion is only given to first-time drug possession offenders.

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