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Setting the record straight on sentencing

I am writing to correct a number of inaccuracies in the May 20 “special report” printed in your newspaper (“A push from the right: More conservatives joining fight to change sentencing guidelines”).  I am sure the reporter’s intention was to present a thorough examination of this important topic, but her final product was extremely one-sided and lacking in several important facts.  As the chief prosecutor for the 4 million residents of Maricopa County, I feel it is my duty to set the record straight.

The problems in this article begin with the characterization of Candita Gottsponer, the convicted felon featured in the opening of the report.  She is described as someone “with a record for marijuana possession” who “didn’t expect to go to prison for her first DUI.”   The impression most readers might have is that Gottsponer was given a lengthy prison sentence (23 months) for what seems like a mild offense.

In fact, a simple Internet search of publicly available court documents would have revealed that Gottsponer had eight criminal cases, five of which involved felony offenses, including misconduct involving a weapon, possession and use of a dangerous drug, credit card theft, involving a minor in a drug offense and failure to appear.  The writer also fails to mention that Gottsponer’s first DUI was an aggravated felony offense — she was driving under the influence with children in the vehicle.

Gottsponer received a prison sentence not because her offenses were “non-violent” as the article mistakenly suggests, but because she committed multiple felony crimes — exactly the type of repeat criminal Arizona’s tough sentencing laws are designed to target.  Further proof of the efficacy of her sentence comes from Gottsponer herself, who readily admits that prison afforded her the opportunity to get an education, turn her life around and become, in her words, “a good role model for her kids.”  I applaud her change in attitude.

If anything, Gottsponer is a prime example of how well our current sentencing regime works.

The article goes on to suggest, with no objective supporting data, that Arizona has eliminated  alternatives to incarceration such as fines and substance abuse treatment in favor of lengthy prison sentences.  Exactly the opposite is true.  In 2010 alone, more than 4,400 felons in Maricopa County have been offered diversion programs instead of prison, while defendants in some 6,200 drug cases were sent to substance abuse programs, not prison.

The common misconception, repeated throughout the article, is that a simple drug possession conviction in Arizona results in jail or prison time.  Again, not true.  The overwhelming majority of first-time felony drug possession cases result in probation.  And under Proposition 200, with very limited exceptions, first and second-time drug possessors must be placed on probation and offered the opportunity of drug treatment.  The indisputable fact is that a first time drug user has to work pretty hard to get into prison in Arizona.

Had the reporter relied on the actual numbers instead of generalities from various interest groups, she would have discovered that only 68 of the roughly 40,000 inmates in the Arizona Department of Corrections are there for possessing drugs — and most of those convicts pled their cases down from more serious offenses.  All other drug offenders in our prisons are there for narcotics trafficking, a serious crime which no true conservative — or anyone with a true concern for public safety — would say should be treated lightly.

The article is also rife with distortions of Arizona’s sentencing statutes.  Here’s just one example: “a bill signed by Gov. Jan Brewer made causing an accident while driving with a suspended license a felony rather than a misdemeanor, raising the penalty from a maximum of 30 days in jail to a minimum of nine months behind bars.”  Left out of this truncated description is any mention that the type of “accident” addressed in this statute is one which results in a death or serious physical injury.  As a result, the reader is left to believe that you can go to jail for nine months or more for causing a simple fender bender on a suspended license.

I also take issue with the quantitative analysis underpinning many of the article’s assertions about the cost of our current sentencing regime.  The budget for Arizona’s Department of Corrections, we are told, has risen from $41.4 million in fiscal 1979 to $721 million in fiscal 2000 (no effort is made to adjust those dollars for inflation, but let’s put that aside for the moment).  Additionally, according to the article the number of inmates has increased “10 times over since the late 1970s, while the state’s population had only doubled.”

By themselves and without the proper context, these numbers appear to be excessively large.   Yet a more responsible and complete analysis would have also looked at what Arizona’s presumably large investment in incarceration has yielded in the way of benefits.  Nowhere in the article is there any mention of the huge reduction in crime the state has enjoyed over this roughly 30-year period.  Such details, of course, would have provided the inconvenient and incontrovertible truth that our current incarceration policies have actually made Arizona a much safer place to live, work and raise a family.

In Maricopa County, with 65 percent of the state’s population, violent and property crimes have fallen nearly 29 percent (as the number of inmates rose 38 percent).  Before comprehensive sentencing reform, Arizona was perpetually among the top three states in serious crime.  By 2009 (the most recent reported year), we’re down to 15th.  A decade ago, Phoenix was ranked the top city for auto theft.  Today we’re down to 56th place.  Many other types of crimes are also down significantly.

The financial impact of these declines is substantial (and also absent from the article’s analysis).  Research data compiled by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council found that Arizona’s strengthened sentencing statutes have led to the incarceration of an estimated 3,100 additional offenders in Maricopa County since 2005 who would have otherwise not been sent to prison.  These are largely repeat offenders who have been found to commit an average of just under one felony per month.  With an average prison sentence of 33 months under Arizona’s truth-in-sentencing laws, that works out to roughly 98,038 additional crimes prevented in Maricopa County alone.

Assuming 90 percent of those deterred crimes (88,234) are property crimes with an average cost of $1,900 each, that works out to a savings of $167.7 million.  Assuming the remaining 10 percent (9,804) are violent offenses, generally estimated to cost $20,000 each, that savings approaches $196 million. So, not only are we safer thanks to tougher sentencing, we’ve also saved a bundle — roughly $363.7 million.

And this is precisely the outcome proponents envisioned when they enacted tougher sentencing laws: fewer crimes, fewer crime victims, greater savings, and safer neighborhoods.

But wait, the reporter warns us, the number of inmates in Arizona continues to rise!  Scary looking figures supposedly supporting this trend are offered as the article’s parting shot.  But these miss the mark entirely.  Yes, many people are going to prison — but more are actually coming out.  In fact, over the past 11 months there’s actually been a net outflow of inmates.  So images of an ever-expanding prison population are simply wrong.

Given the many inaccuracies throughout the report which I’ve cited, I’d like to respectfully ask that the Capitol Times revisit this topic and apply a more rigorous analysis of our sentencing laws, one informed by actual facts instead of opinions and generalities.  There is a strong, substantiated argument that Arizona’s current sentencing regime has made our state safer and saved the taxpayers substantial amounts of money.  Your readers deserve to hear it.

— Bill Montgomery is the Maricopa County attorney.

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  1. Bill is right on as usual and again gives me and others the reason we supported and voted for him.
    He is the right man at the right time in the right position. And as usual the paper and its staff are hard press to do justice to a story that with a little effort and research could have been right on also.

  2. I love the adage that the difference in “facts” and “truth” is that facts change over time. Prosecutor Montgomery is not ‘right as usual’. His too writes a slanted and distorted side of reality–his perspective. Note that it is a fact that it is a violent felony, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 7 years per count of any 1st offender DUI accident that draws blood from a finger, fractures a toe, or where an airbag or seatbelt causes minor injury, which the CA’s office characterizes as a serious injury to capture the benefit of MMS. Note too, that probation conditions in Maricopa County are also distorted from a normal person’s view of probation. One common condition of probation in Maricopa County is to spend the first 1/2 of it (1 yr/count, up to 2 years) incarcerated in the Maricopa County Jail–tent city “while on probation”. That is a normal and usual condition of the plea arrangements the prosecutor is able to extract while holding the pistol of mandatory minimum sentencing to a citizens head with one hand, and a pen to sign the agreement in the other. Note third, that Sheriff Joe Arpaio extracts up to 1/4th of the net pay of anyone on work furlough in Tent City. Probationers are thereby paying part of the MCSO’s operating budget and adjudicated by the local sheriff, not the court. Maricopa County is “ANYTHING BUT” a fair representation of good laws by any reasonable American standard. And, the County Attorney’s office has been proven to be a source of rampant corruption and power abuse (aka: Andrew Thomas) as is the sheriff’s office (aka: Chief Deputies Hendershot, Fox, Black and soon to be the sheriff too if Congress, Homeland Security, or the Justice Department decide to make it so.)

    To be fair, the corruption in Arizona State Senate, which is 2/3rds governed by Maricopa County, is so rife with corruption that I doubt any report could get the full truth, much less the facts, regarding the practices of the County Attorney’s Office. If former County Attorney Thomas is indicted next year, as many expect after he is stripped of his Bar license, and given State Senate President Pierce’s recall, Mr. Montgomery should be considering himself put on notice that life as usual in Maricopa County is changing/

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