Arizona is home to more than 40,000 convicted felons. The state’s prison population has grown rapidly over the past 30 years, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
We have the sixth-highest rate of incarceration in the country, and our massive prison industrial complex costs taxpayers over $1 billion each year. Aside from state-run prisons, taxpayers must also support the growing number of offenders being housed in private prisons that charge the state by the day for occupancy. If we didn’t lock up so many people, those funds could be put to better use improving our infrastructure, education programs, and social services. With the right community supports in place to deter crime and promote civic engagement, we can get there.
The incarceration epidemic doesn’t affect all Arizonans equally. Our young men of color are disproportionately shuttled from their classrooms to prison cells through a particularly strong school-to-prison pipeline that severely limits their chances of finishing high school or getting a college degree. We need to act to end this vicious cycle, because schools in our state — and particularly Legislative District 27 — cannot become the state’s pre-prison incubator.
Candidates running for office in this year’s elections must consider what they will do to address the overwhelming number of boys and young men of color currently in Arizona’s juvenile and adult prison systems. It will take time to drum up support for comprehensive prison reform, but candidates like incumbent Rep. Norma Muñoz, a co-author of this piece, have already identified several specific ways we can act now to build bright futures for kids who deserve to beat the odds.
The first and most important way to address over-incarceration is through education. All Arizona kids deserve to attend schools that have the tools and supports needed to keep them in the classroom, ensure they achieve at a high level, and graduate ready for college or a career. That means more funding for poorer districts that lack after-school programs, capable teachers, and college and career readiness services. It means supporting policy initiatives that marshal all our collective resources to provide the very best education to our students, to keep them engaged and help them compete effectively with their peers across the country. And it means embracing reforms that expand educational options for families while supporting schools with proven track records of success.
Second, we need a community-based approach that allows kids to live in safe and just neighborhoods that provide the supports needed for healthy youth development and economic self-sufficiency. Policies and programs that seek to end class- and race-based segregation will help build vibrant communities that support all kids — not just the ones deemed most likely to succeed. Furthermore, access to quality health services that address exposure to chronic adversity and trauma can help level the playing field for disadvantaged kids and prevent them from turning to crime. Lending legislative support to community organizations can help promote localized solutions that can turn neighborhoods around.
Finally, our legislators must assist in removing the barriers that prevent young Arizonans from finding adequate employment after leaving school. We need to give them increased access to career education and training, which can help them stay out of the juvenile penal system and ensure that those who do go through the system leave with the skills they need to succeed. Having a clear path to opportunity and employment helps to prevent crime and reduce recidivism among former offenders.
It won’t be easy to reform a system that increasingly uses jail sentences as a way to avoid solving large-scale societal problems, but it’s absolutely crucial to support efforts that keep kids in school and out of prison.
Legislators have a duty to ensure equal opportunity for all Arizonans, and that means investing in the policies and programs that will prevent our children from becoming statistics. Our kids — the next generation of leaders — have so much to offer, and too often we stifle that potential by locking them up and throwing away the key, particularly when it comes to young men of color. It’s time to make ending the school-to-prison pipeline a legislative priority, because our kids deserve better.
— Norma Muñoz is Arizona state representative for Legislative District 27, and Lawrence Robinson is a member of the Board of Advisors of Democrats for Education Reform Arizona.