With respect to the recent reviews and criticism of the recently released report, “Prisoners in Arizona,” by the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council APAAC), the supporters and the critics are both right and both wrong. The report does provide valuable information not previously analyzed, and the reviewers each misjudge the other’s position.
The report provides new information about recidivism that is useful to legislators, prosecutors, corrections administration, and reform advocates. Although the report uses some skewed numbers, especially with regard to the category of “repeat offenders,” it is nonetheless enlightening to learn that the 1994 criminal code change, which increased the length of time in prison for virtually all offenders, had essentially no effect on recidivism rates for any category of offender.
This means that the push for longer sentences was useless and even counterproductive economically and in terms of public safety. This is probably the single most important thing to be learned from this report. There are flaws in the report, especially with regard to the analysis of “repeat offenders,” and with regard to the conclusions arising from that flaw, but the report itself provides a level of detailed information not previously available to anyone.
The report improperly categorizes many – perhaps most – low-level drug offenders who have been charged with multiple, separate counts for the sale of minor amounts with the overarching phrase, “sale or distribution of dangerous drugs.” In other words, the report utterly fails to distinguish between serious distributors and true low-level drug offenders who are improperly imprisoned for needlessly lengthy periods of time.
Importantly, this error is accomplished by county prosecutorial offices which craft plea agreements for “sale or distribution of dangerous drugs,” with no distinction for very large amounts, connection to large distribution networks, or actual impact / threat to the community. If prosecutors were NOT actually sending low-level drug offenders to prison for lengthy periods of time, they would be crafting plea agreements that clearly and unmistakably distinguish drug offenders on the basis of actual threat to the community versus merely selling a few hits or grams to an undercover officer in order to make enough money for his own personal use.
The position taken toward the report and toward APAAC by some reform advocates as expressed in the media unfairly characterizes the report as a distraction and a justification for resisting sentencing reform in Arizona. Critics of the report claim that it was published in order to distract attention from the issue of sentencing reform, especially mandatory minimums and excessive sentence length. To a certain extent, this is inaccurate, because Arizona’s prosecutors, by and large, have been amenable to front-end diversion programs such as Veteran’s Courts and Drug Courts, taking steps to reduce the flow of persons into prison. While these are only initial steps, they shouldn’t be discounted and are welcome innovations implemented for the right reasons and already having constructive effects.
On the other hand, however, critics are correct in saying that APAAC has been arbitrarily resistant to reasonable suggestions for sentencing reform where such reform does not negatively affect public safety. Although some of the sentencing reform bills from the 2017 legislative session were seriously flawed, the intense resistance on the part of APAAC was unreasonable and inappropriate — and now we have a report that confirms it.
For example, if the legislative change from 50 percent to 85 percent of a prison sentence before release eligibility had no effect on recidivism rates or public safety, then vast amounts of money for prison expansion spent on that increase was unnecessary and economically devastating — and were not based on empirical evidence, but rather on knee-jerk subjective prejudices. Using the new APAAC report, we can see many types of crimes that do not have high recidivism rates within the first three to eight or 10 years following prison release. We thus can see our way to significant cost savings by cautiously implementing sentencing reform for those types of offenses.
Ultimately, we will never achieve meaningful sentencing reform in Arizona with both sides bashing the other and making “straw dog” arguments based on false mischaracterization of the other’s positions. Instead, we must take baby steps and then measure results as they inform public safety, in much the same way that the recently released APAAC report undertook its detailed and valuable account of recidivism in all categories of offenses. Knowing which categories of offenders recidivate least often can suggest sentencing reductions that are plausible and realistic.
— Donna Leone Hamm is director of Middle Ground Prison Reform.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.